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Interceptor flop show casts cloud on US missile shield plan

Washington, Dec. 11 (Reuters): A device designed to destroy an incoming warhead failed to separate from its booster rocket in a test over the Pacific today, setting back a US push to shield against ballistic missiles from countries such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

First reports showed no sign that the device itself, the “Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle” built by Raytheon Co, had anything to do with the failure, said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner of the Pentagon’s Missile Defence Agency.

A similar separation failure in a July 8, 2000, test was traced to botched commands from the booster’s upper-stage assembly built by Lockheed Martin Corp. “We don’t know if that’s the cause this time but we’re going to investigate this possibility,” Lehner said in a telephone interview. He said it was “frustrating and disappointing” that a possibly low-tech glitch had doomed the test of the ground-based defence which was designed to intercept ballistic missiles in mid-course flight towards their target.

Five of the previous flight tests, including the last four in a row, have succeeded in shooting down the target launched from California’s Vandenberg air force base.

Today’s flight marked the third failure, including the 2000 test in which the explosive bolts on the kill vehicle also failed to trigger.

A spokesman for Lexington, Massachussets-based Raytheon, Dave Shea, said the company had confidence in its design. Raytheon technology seemed an unlikely culprit, he said.

Tom Jurkowsky, a spokesman for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed, said the company would examine the test results with its fellowcontractors, led by Boeing.

The kill vehicle weighs about 54 kg. Equipped with two infrared sensors and a visible sensor, it packs a small propulsion system meant to zero in on its target, bypassing decoys expected to accompany any incoming warhead.

The botched “hit-to-kill” intercept was meant to demonstrate that, as in previous tests, a warhead tipped with a weapon of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical or biological — would be be totally destroyed and neutralised in a collision with the “kill vehicle.”

Lehner said the test had begun without a hitch with the launching of a modified Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg, on the central California coast.

Also launched without incident was the interceptor, which is a test “surrogate” for a three-stage operational booster to be supplied either by Lockheed or Orbital Sciences Corp. It was fired from 7,700 km away on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, for the first time under cover of night, a new wrinkle in the testing programme.

“Initial post-test analysis indicate that all other programme elements successfully completed their test objectives, including radars and other sensors, as well as the battle management, command, control and communication elements,” a Pentagon statement said.

President George W. Bush wants to put an Alaska-based “test bed” with five missile silos — and rudimentary operational capabilities — in place by October 2004.

The site, at Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, would constitute the first leg of a planned multilayered defence against missiles from countries such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea, members of Bush’s “axis of evil.” Other Pentagon development projects involve overlappng systems that could be based at sea, in space and aboard laser-firing modified Boeing airliners.

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