WASHINGTON (AP) -- A U.S. missile interceptor launched in a burst of flame Saturday from a Pacific island missed its intended target -- a dummy warhead gliding through space, the Pentagon said.
''We failed to achieve an intercept,'' said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. Details were not immediately available, but the failure was viewed as a blow to the defense missile program.
The failure raised the possibility of a substantial delay in the Pentagon's timetable of having a national anti-missile defense system ready for use by the end of 2005.
The test could have a major impact on Alaska. The Pentagon has indicated that an Alaska site -- either Fort Greely near Delta Junction or Clear Air Station near Nenana -- is the likely home base for the missile defense system if it is built.
In addition, a high-tech radar system would be built in the western Aleutians as an early-warning outpost.
The next attempted intercept is scheduled for this fall, but depending on the severity of the problem with Saturday's test, that could be pushed back a number of months.
If the test had succeeded, it could have moved the United States a step closer to building a national missile defense that Congress says is urgently needed, but that critics decry as unworkable.
After fixing a last-minute technical glitch that delayed the start of the test by about two hours, a modified Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile with a dummy warhead atop its third stage rocket blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 12:19 a.m. EDT.
The rocket headed toward the central Pacific.
Twenty-one minutes later, at 12:40 a.m. EDT, an interceptor missile carrying a warhead-blasting ''kill vehicle'' launched from Kwajalein Atoll.
The interceptor was supposed to have collided with the mock warhead after about 10 minutes of flight over the Pacific, but television monitors showed now flash indicating a collision.
Nearly a half hour passed before officials who monitored the flight test from a basement office in the Pentagon reported that the interceptor missile had missed its target.
Pentagon officials planned an early-morning news conference after further evaluating the failure. Officials gave no immediate indication on what went wrong.
The ''kill vehicle'' was programmed to use target data gathered from ground-based radars to maneuver itself into the path of the dummy warhead 140 miles above the Earth. The goal was a 16,000-mile-an-hour collision that would disintegrate the warhead by sheer force of impact.
At stake is the future of a multibillion dollar project that has upset Russia and China and caused many of America's closest European allies to wince at the prospect of a U.S.-only defense against a missile attack.
Although President Clinton says he will decide soon whether to keep the project moving toward an anticipated deployment in 2005, it will be up to his successor to make the final steps to build and deploy it.
This fast-approaching decision deadline for Clinton gave Saturday's test extra urgency and public attention.
The last-minute technical glitch was a weak battery that supplies power to a telemetry system which is needed to help engineers on the ground record the exact point of impact between the dummy warhead and the ''kill vehicle.'' The battery was recharged and all other systems appeared normal prior to liftoff, officials said.
Had Saturday's test worked, Defense Secretary William Cohen had been expected to recommend to Clinton that he take the first steps in a phased building plan that would have the missile defense system ready to use by December 2005.
This was the third in a series of missile intercept tests. The first, last October, succeeded. The second, in January, failed. Saturday's test was delayed more than two months to fix the problem that plagued January's test.
The anti-nuclear activist group Greenpeace had hoped to halt Saturday's test by placing a ship in the Pacific where a rocket stage is expected to splash down about 110 miles offshore from Vandenberg, said Steve Shallhorn, the group's campaign director.
At the White House before Saturday's test, spokesman P.J. Crowley said: ''I would say a hit doesn't automatically suggest success, nor does a failure automatically come with a miss tonight.''
One of the biggest backers of missile defense in Congress, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said in an interview Friday that he believes America can afford a missile defense even though defense dollars are tight.
''Without a doubt, Congress will approve the funding for a missile defense system'' so long as U.S. military leaders feel confident it is technologically ready for deployment, Cochran said. Cost estimates range from the Pentagon's $36 billion to the General Accounting Office's $60 billion.
By law, the Pentagon must deploy a national missile defense as soon as it is technologically feasible.
On the Net:
Ballistic Missile Defense Organization: http://www.acq.osd.mil/bmdo/bmdolink/html/
Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/
CIA assessment of missile threat: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/nie/nie99msl.html
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