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Pentagon claims missile-defence success

Son of Star Wars repels treacherous Alaskan attack

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The Pentagon's Missile Defence Agency (MDA) has announced a successful test of its ICBM-nobbling space interceptor system.

In a release (pdf) on Friday, the military missile-busters said "indications are that the rocket motor system and kill vehicle performed as designed".

In the trial last week, a "threat representative missile" was launched from the Kodiak Island launch complex in Alaska, which is mainly used to fire pretend enemy missiles for the MDA to practice against.

(These spacegoing clay pigeons are made from retread Polaris lower stages with a commercial Orbus third stage on top.)

The last one of these, back in May, proved a bit of a damp squib; mirroring the performance to date of the North Korean Taepodong-2 missile, the only current rogue-state rocket which could perhaps threaten America.

This time, however, the fictional Alaskan attackers managed to be suitably menacing and the MDA defences were able to have a bit of a workout. The soaring target rocket was tracked by the floating Sea-Based X-Band radar and by the SPY-1 radar of an Aegis missile cruiser in the Pacific. The Upgraded Early Warning Radar at Beale airforce base in California got in on the act, too.

In due course, an interceptor rocket took off from the resoundingly-named Ronald W Reagan Missile Defense Site at Vandenberg airforce base, using triple stages to throw an "Exo-atmospheric kill vehicle" into the path of the Alaskan payload hurtling through space. From what the MDA is saying, the kill vehicle managed a "hit-to-kill" interception, destroying its target by colliding with it.

Critics of the MDA will be unswayed by this success, arguing that threat missiles of the future would use more than one warhead, probably mixed with decoys. This could offer the chance for attackers to overwhelm defences relatively easily.

The Pentagon openly admits that its gear would never work against a Russian attack, for instance; but the military missile-botherers would probably also point out that space intercept is just one of the gauntlets that enemy WMDs of the future will have to run. The MDA also has plans to shoot down the missiles as they boost upward from their silos (using a raygun cannon in a Boeing 747, of course) and perhaps to pick off surviving warheads during re-entry and descent as well.

Even so, plenty of people are firmly against the whole business, or contend that the tests thus far are meaningless. Reuters quotes Philip Coyle, a Clinton-era Pentagon weapons official, as saying:

"Once again, there were no countermeasures or decoys used, making this test one of the simplest, easiest, flight intercept tests they've ever tried."

Well, maybe. Hitting a piece of hardware going at 15,000mph with another one going at 7,000mph probably won't ever be really simple and easy. As for the decoys, multiple warheads etc, the MDA would probably say the answer is to use more kill vehicles and thus more - or bigger - interceptor rockets. Last week's test alone cost $85m, apparently, so that isn't an answer the MDA's enemies will want to hear.

Other detractors of the US missile-defence effort - presumably believing that it could actually work - feel that it provokes Russia and China too much, threatening the status quo. Proposals to site radars and interceptors in eastern Europe have certainly led to a lot of grumpiness from the Kremlin.

Still, the champagne corks will no doubt have been popping down at the MDA over the weekend. Now it just has to get that pesky laser-cannon jumbo jet working. ®

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