updated 12/8/2004 5:19:19 PM ET 2004-12-08T22:19:19

The military planned to conduct the first full flight test of its national missile defense system in nearly two years, with the test possibly coming as early as Wednesday evening.

Weather conditions at a launch site in Alaska would determine when the test would go forward, said Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency.

The $85 million test comes as the military is in final preparations to activate missile defenses designed to protect against an intercontinental ballistic missile attack from North Korea or elsewhere in eastern Asia.

During the test, a target missile will be launched from Kodiak Island, Alaska, and an interceptor missile will fire from Kwajalein Island in the central Pacific Ocean.

Accuracy not the point for this test
Because the launches will test several new aspects of the missile defense system, Lehner said, actually shooting down the target is not a primary goal of the mission.

The test is the first in which the interceptor uses the same booster rocket that the operational system uses, Lehner said. It is also the first in which a target missile is launched from Kodiak.

In earlier testing, which critics deride as highly scripted, the interceptors went 5-for-8 when launched with the goal of hitting target missiles.

Interactive: How a missile shield works

Two previous tests scheduled for this year were delayed because of technical problems. The next test, which will try to hit a target missile, is scheduled for early 2005.

In April, the chief of missile defense programs at the time, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ron Kadish, said failures in coming tests could mean “big problems” for the controversial program.

The Bush administration has made the deployment of missile defenses a key aspect of its national security policy, saying it is vital to defend the nation against missiles launched by hostile nations.

Critics charge that the technology is neither ready nor affordable and say it fails to address the greater threat of weapons of mass destruction brought into the country by terrorists or other means.

Deployment expected soon
Sometime this month, the military expects to announce that the missile defense system is operational. It is initially built around six interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, as well as radars in the Aleutians, in California and on warships at sea. In addition, two more interceptors will be placed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The Kwajalein interceptor site is for testing only.

The first Vandenberg missile had been scheduled to go in its silo Tuesday, but Lehner said that it was delayed and that it was now expected to be in place Thursday.

Lehner said the missile defense system was technically functional except for mechanical blocks that prevented interceptors from being fired. Senior military officials are still working out chain-of-command authority over who could order an interceptor launch during an attack, he said.

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