WASHINGTON (AP) _ A prototype interceptor rocket blew up a dummy warhead high over the Pacific in an explosive rendezvous marking the most complex test of missile defense technology so far, the Pentagon said.
The missile test 140 miles above the Earth on Friday night was the sixth for a ground-based missile defense system and the fourth success. The military is also developing other types of anti-missile systems; a ship-based interceptor rocket successfully hit a dummy warhead in a test earlier this year.
The interceptor in Friday's test, launched from Meck Island in Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific near the equator, destroyed the dummy warhead at 9:41 p.m. EST, Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. The test warhead was carried on a modified Minuteman II missile launched 4,800 miles away at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Although complex, the exercise was still a developmental test and not an operational one, which would be more demanding. The dummy missile jettisoned three balloons to try to fool the interceptor. The previous test included only one decoy balloon.
The interceptor used its own sensors to pick out the warhead, track it and move in to collide with it, a Pentagon statement said.
Skeptics stressed that the missile defense system is still in its early stages.
``We have a long way to go before the final exam,'' said Chris Madison of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. ``I'm concerned that people have the impression, based on these tests, that we're almost to missile defense. Until we have operational testing, we'll have no idea whether we can get there.''
The Bush administration is pressing ahead with development of the anti-missile systems, saying the United States needs a defense if a rogue country like North Korea develops and fires long-range missiles at American shores.
President Bush announced last year he was pulling the United States out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which bans such missile defenses. Russia and some other countries have criticized the pullout.
Domestic missile defense critics say the program is too costly and too easily defeated with simple countermeasures or by firing a larger number of missiles.
Designing, testing and building a system of land- and sea-based missile defenses would cost between $23 billion and $64 billion by 2015, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated earlier this year.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress last month that the Pentagon hoped to have four prototype anti-missile rockets stationed in Alaska in two years.
That would happen before operational tests, which will use the most realistic scenarios. The Missile Defense Agency hopes to shift to tests over the North Pacific after 2004 for its more realistic tests, agency spokesman Lt. Col. Rick Lehner said.
``Our job is to develop the hardware necessary if we are directed to build'' a missile defense system, Lehner said.
The full set of tests won't be finished until 2006 or 2007. The Pentagon hopes to test the ground-based system every three months until it's ready, Lehner said.