December 6, 2008 / 12:45 AM / 11 years ago

U.S. hails missile shield test but doubts remain

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Friday it conducted a successful test of its missile defense system, but the target failed to deploy measures that experts said could have helped it avoid destruction.

The test took place as the Pentagon braces for more scrutiny of the program after President-elect Barack Obama, a Democrat, takes office in January. The system, which officials say is to defend against states such as North Korea and Iran, is a flagship policy of the Republican Bush administration.

In Friday’s test, a target missile was fired from Kodiak, Alaska, and its warhead was destroyed 124 miles above the Pacific Ocean by a “kill vehicle” that detached from an interceptor missile fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

“It was the largest, most complex test we have ever done,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’ Reilly, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.

However, the 40-year-old target missile failed to deploy counter-measures. O’Reilly declined to say what those measures were but they can include decoys or chaff — tiny strips of metal foil used to confuse radar systems.

O’Reilly said the test was “operationally realistic” despite the failure of the counter-measures. He said the military had used a network of land and sea-based radars and control systems in the test.

“Overall, I’m extremely pleased,” he said. “There are many threats out there today that do not have counter-measures.”

But critics of the program, which the Pentagon says has cost about $100 billion since 1999, said it was unrealistic to expect the United States would face any missile threat that did not include counter-measures.

“Any country with the technical capability and the motivation to fire a long-range missile at the U.S. would also have the technical capability and the motivation to add decoys to it that are designed to defeat the defense,” David Wright, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said by email.

According to the Pentagon, this was the eighth successful test of the ground-based interceptor system in 13 attempts since 1999.

Boeing Co is prime contractor for the system, called the ground-based midcourse defense.

The United States and Russia are at odds over a Bush administration plan to extend the system into Eastern Europe, using 10 silo-based two-stage interceptors in Poland and a related radar system in the Czech Republic.

U.S. officials say the system aims to protect the United States and its allies from attacks by states which might fire a small number of missiles and it could not defend against a country like Russia with a much larger arsenal.

Critics of the program question whether any country would fire a long-range missile at the United States, knowing it would almost certainly face massive retaliation.

Additional reporting by David Morgan and Jim Wolf, editing by Vicki Allen

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