US anti-missile shield fails $85m interceptor test


US: The first test in nearly two years of a multi-billion-dollar US anti-missile shield failed yesterday when the interceptor missile shut down as it prepared to launch in the central Pacific, the Pentagon said.

About 16 minutes earlier, a target missile carrying a mock warhead had been successfully fired from Kodiak Island, Alaska, according to a statement from the Missile Defence Agency. The aborted $85 million test appeared likely to set back plans for activation of a rudimentary bulwark against long-range ballistic missiles.

In 2002, President Bush pledged to have initial elements of the program up and running by the end of this year while testing and development continued.

An "anomaly" of unknown origin caused the interceptor to shut down automatically in its silo at the Kwajalein test range in the Marshall Islands, said Mr Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's missile agency. The test followed a week of delays caused by weather and technical glitches, including malfunction of an internal battery aboard the target missile on Tuesday, he said.

"This is a serious setback for a program that had not attempted a flight intercept test for two years," said Mr Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's chief weapons tester under President Reagan. The system is a scaled-down version of a ballistic missile shield first outlined in March 1983 by Mr Reagan.

Pentagon officials had hoped the test would set the stage for any decision by Mr Bush to put the system on alert in coming weeks. Initially, it is designed to counter North Korean missiles which could be fired at the United States and tipped with nuclear, chemical or germ weapons.

Because the mission was supposed to have exercised new hardware, software and engagement scenarios, it was officially described as a "fly-by" rather than an attempted intercept. This meant gathering data was the primary goal, not downing the target, according to the missile agency.

When a shoot-down has been the chief test objective, the system so far has succeeded five of eight times in highly scripted conditions. The last test, in December 2002, misfired when the warhead - a 120-lb "kill vehicle" of sensors, chips and thrusters designed to pulverise its target - failed to separate from its booster rocket.

Boeing, as prime contractor, put together the ground-based shield. All told, the Pentagon is spending $10 billion a year on the project.