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Missile shield to face tough tests

U.S. efforts to develop a layered defense against enemy missiles have “turned a major corner,” and three tough tests of the system are planned this year, a Pentagon official says.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. efforts to develop a layered defense against enemy missiles have “turned a major corner,” and three tough tests of the system are planned this year, the Pentagon’s missile defense chief said Monday.

Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Henry Obering said the missile shield could already thwart enemy missile attacks, given a finite, but not impractical amount of time to prepare, and more interceptors and radars would be added this year.

“We will always be continually assessing our capabilities, and if we need to make adjustments we’ll do so,” he told reporters after a conference. “I am confident that if we had to use the system, the system would work.”

He said recent news about nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea underscored the need for a U.S. missile defense, and even U.S. allies that had been skeptical in the past were becoming more supportive.

Obering said the Missile Defense Agency had revamped its testing procedures and improved quality control after the interceptor failed to launch in two tests in late 2004 and early 2005, but turned up no “showstoppers” or reasons to halt the program.

“Based on the testing that we have done in this past year, we had some tremendous successes that I see as a portent of the future,” he said. “That’s not to say that we may not have setbacks in the future, but I do think that we turned a major corner this year.”

The White House asked Congress for $9.3 billion in funding for the Missile Defense Agency in fiscal 2007, up from $7.8 billion in fiscal 2006, including an increase of $1.6 billion to field more interceptor missiles at sea at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

He said a decision to declare the developmental program fully operational was “way above his pay grade,” but he favored a realistic approach aimed at avoiding inflated expectations of the system’s capability. The U.S. administration had initially hoped to declare the system operational in 2004.

Obering said the agency planned three more operationally realistic tests pf the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System this year, including up to two tests to see if U.S. defenses could intercept a simulated enemy missile. The last successful intercept took place in October 2002.

The Missile Defense Agency expects to make a decision by the fall about where to build a European interceptor site, he said, noting that discussions were under way with several countries. The fiscal 2007 budget request includes $119 million to start buying items that would be needed for the site, planned to become operational around 2010 to 2011. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland have said they are in discussions with the United States about the site.