NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States scrapped on Friday a key test of an emerging missile-defense shield after a dummy missile that was to have been the system’s target went astray over the Pacific.
“The target did not reach sufficient altitude to be deemed a threat, and so the ballistic missile defense system did not engage it, as designed,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.
The event was officially designated a “no test” when the target, launched from Alaska’s Kodiak Island, failed to reach the defended zone, said Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman.
It was a blow to President Bush’s multibillion-dollar drive for a layered shield to thwart ballistic missiles from countries like North Korea and Iran that could be tipped with chemical, germ or nuclear warheads.
“We need more demonstrations of the capability and this just delays this,” said Riki Ellison of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a group funded partly by missile shield contractors.
If the errant missile had flown right, it was to have been slammed into by an interceptor to have been fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s central coast.
It was the first test in which a shoot-down was the main goal using nothing but “operationally configured” system components, launched as if in a real attack, rather than prototypes.
The last test of the missile shield’s ground-based components took place in September 2006, although an interception was then said to have been a secondary goal.
The missile that misfired was supplied by Sandia National Laboratories, an Energy Department arm managed by Lockheed Martin Corp., the Pentagon’s Lehner said.
The target missile is not the responsibility of Boeing Co., the Pentagon’s prime contractor for the so-called ground-based midcourse system, said Marc Selinger, a Boeing spokesman.
The botched test “reinforces the need” to install U.S. 10 interceptors in Poland and a tracking radar station in the Czech Republic as a defense against a potential missile attack from Iran, Lehner said.
It showed that any missiles launched by Iran could similarly go astray and land in Europe even if Europe was not Iran’s target, he added.
Going into this test, the ground-based system had successfully intercepted its target five out of nine times when an intercept was the test’s primary mission, Lehner said.
Critics maintain the tests prove little even when successful because they are highly scripted. An attacker would use decoys that would likely foil U.S. defenses, they say.