July 12, 2006

U.S. Says Missile-Shield Component Test Successful

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military said it successfully tested on Wednesday a missile-shield component built by Lockheed Martin Corp. to shoot down a ballistic missile in the last minute or so of its flight.

The so-called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense weapon system, or THAAD, "exceeded its objectives" in the long-planned test by shooting down a non-separating Hera target missile at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, Lockheed said in a statement.

THAAD, which is still being developed, is to be part of a layered shield meant to defend against all ranges of ballistic missiles in all phases of flight.

The backbone of the fledgling U.S. shield -- a ground-based system coordinated by Boeing Co. to thwart long-range missiles in the middle of their flight path -- was on alert during North Korea's missile launches a week ago.

Of 10 planned flight tests of the ground-based, mid-course system, five have ended with successful intercepts. In the two most recent ones, the interceptor did not get off the ground.

The THAAD element is designed to destroy short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their terminal flight phase -- approximately the last minute of flight.

The Pentagon plans to field two units consisting of 24 missiles each, the first one in 2009 and the second one by December 2011, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative and audit arm.

"Initial indications are that all planned flight test objectives were achieved," the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said of the THAAD test.

Pam Rogers, an agency spokeswoman, said the test had "absolutely no connection to the situation in North Korea," which test-fired at least seven ballistic missiles on July 5, including a multistage Taepodong 2 missile with a potential range that could include Alaska.

This marked the third successful THAAD developmental flight test since such testing resumed in November 2005. The remaining tests are for verifying the system's capabilities at "increasingly difficult levels," the Missile Defense Agency said.

The primary goal of the latest test was to demonstrate an ability for the THAAD interceptor to see and track the target high in the earth's atmosphere, after its reentry from space, Rogers said.

The United States has spent roughly $100 billion on missile defense since then-President Ronald Reagan launched his so-called Strategic Defense Initiative more than 20 years ago -- a project mocked by critics as "Star Wars."