WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a boost for President Bush's hopes to build a defense against ballistic missile attack, the Pentagon scored a hit Saturday with an interceptor that soared into space from a tiny Pacific isle and destroyed its target, a mock nuclear warhead.
It was the first test of the ``hit-to-kill'' technology the administration hopes will become a key element of a missile defense network. Of three previous tests in 1999 and 2000, two failed and one succeeded.
``The early indication we have is that everything worked,'' Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon's missile defense programs, told a news conference less than an hour after the intercept.
He said it would take many weeks to analyze all the test data, but initial indications were that ``we hit pretty accurately.'' He said the successful test would not alter the Defense Department's plans to continue testing the technology.
Kadish said said the next test, scheduled for October, might include some additional complexities such as adding more decoys, which in an actual attack would be used to attempt to fool the missile interceptor.
At 11:09 p.m. EDT, exactly the scheduled moment of collision between the interceptor and the warhead, an enormous white flash appeared at the planned impact point 144 miles above the earth's surface.
Military officials said minutes later that their tracking data showed a direct hit.
Reporters monitoring the test from a video-teleconference room in the Pentagon could see the white flash. The video then switched to the mission control room on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, where military and civilians officials who were running the test broke into a loud cheer, clapped hands and punched fists into the air.
The interceptor missile was launched from Kwajalein 21 minutes after its target, a modified Minuteman II intercontinental-range missile equipped with a mock warhead, roared toward the heavens from a launch pad 4,800 miles away at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Navigating by the stars and by information transmitted from a ground station on Kwajalein, the interceptor's weapon, known as a ``kill vehicle,'' rammed the mock warhead. The force of impact obliterated the warhead, thus the term ``hit-to-kill,'' as distinct from other approaches such as detonating an explosive in the flight path of the target.
The ``kill vehicle,'' a 120-pound device with its own propulsion, communications, infrared seeker and guidance and control systems, separated from the rocket booster as planned and reached the planned impact point in space about eight minutes after the launch from Kwajalein.
The Coast Guard and Air Force arrested two Greenpeace environmental activists after they swam to shore from an inflatable raft moored off the central California coast, said Air Force Sgt. Rebecca Bonilla. The arrests delayed the launch by two minutes, she said.
The swimmers were among a small group of Greenpeace who tried unsuccessfully to stop the launch, said Carol Gregory, a spokeswoman for the group.
Less was riding on the outcome of Saturday's test than a year ago, when a failed intercept sealed President Clinton's decision to put off initial steps toward deploying a national missile defense.
Bush has made clear he would proceed with an accelerated testing program regardless of the outcome Saturday.
The successful intercept provides a political boost for a project that some congressional Democrats believe risks upsetting relations with Russia and China, and has the potential to create a new arms race.
Failure would not have derailed the effort. It was just the first in a series of tests the administration hopes will produce at least a rudimentary defense against long-range missiles by 2004.
``We expect successes and we expect failures in this high technology that we're using,'' Kadish, director of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said Friday.
He said Saturday's test would ``either give us more confidence in our approach ... or we're going to learn more from it if we fail because it'll be an unexpected reason why we fail and we'll go try to fix it.''
Bush has asked Congress for $8.3 billion to finance missile defense research and testing in 2002, a $3 billion increase over this year. Saturday's test was to cost about $100 million, Kadish said.
The last such missile intercept test, on July 8, 2000, was a stunning failure. The interceptor launched from Kwajalein but the kill vehicle failed to separate from its rocket booster. As a result, the kill vehicle never saw the target.
An October 1999 effort succeeded while a January 2000 test failed.
Kadish said the Pentagon has mapped out a more frequent schedule of tests, including four to six over the next 18 months.
The expanded testing program, described in detail to Congress by Pentagon officials for the first time last week, drew strong criticism from missile defense skeptics at home and abroad.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Friday that if the administration goes ahead with plans to build underground silos next year at Fort Greely, Alaska, for missile interceptors, it would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bars national missile defenses. That, in turn, could spark a new arms race, he said.
``If those plans were realized in practice, they would seriously complicate negotiations and would signify the United States' exit from the ABM treaty,'' Ivanov said Friday in Moscow.
The administration wants Russia to agree to amend or replace the treaty with an arrangement permitting testing and deployment of defenses against long-range missiles.