Washington A missile interceptor soared into the skies Saturday over a tiny Pacific isle and destroyed its target, a mock nuclear warhead traveling through space, the Pentagon said.
It was the Bush administration's first test of the "hit-to-kill" technology it hopes will become a key element of a missile defense network.
At 10:09 p.m. CDT, 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," was to ram the mock warhead 144 miles above the earth's surface. The force of impact would obliterate 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 test schedule called for the "kill vehicle," a 120-pound device with its own propulsion, communications, infrared seeker and guidance and control systems, to reach the planned impact point in space about eight minutes after the launch from Kwajalein.
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," Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald 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.