WASHINGTON -- President Bush came into office promising a more ambitious and costly effort to protect America and its allies from missile attacks.
Moving ahead on that front, the United States was trying late Saturday night to intercept a mock nuclear warhead in space for the first time in the Bush administration.
Less was riding on the outcome than a year ago, when a failed intercept sealed President Clinton's decision to put off initial steps toward deploying a national missile defense.
Bush has made clear he will proceed with an accelerated testing program regardless of the outcome Saturday.
A successful intercept would provide a political boost for a project that some congressional Democrats believe risks upsetting relations with Russia and China, and has the potential to create a new arms race.
Failure would not derail the effort.
It is just the first in a series of tests the administration hopes will produce at least a rudimentary defense against long-range missiles by 2004.
''We expect successes and we expect failures in this high technology that we're using,'' Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said Friday.
Saturday's test, he said, ''will either give us more confidence in our approach ... or we're going to learn more from it if we fail because it'll be an unexpected reason why we fail and we'll go try to fix it.''
Bush has asked Congress for $8.3 billion to finance missile defense research and testing in 2002, a $3 billion increase over this year. Saturday's test was to cost about $100 million, Kadish said.
The intercept was to occur shortly after 10 p.m. EDT, but could came as late as 2 a.m. EDT Sunday.
Kadish, whose office manages the missile defense work, said he was ''quietly confident'' the test would succeed.
A modified Minuteman II intercontinental-range missile was to be launched over the central Pacific Ocean from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. It was to carry a mock warhead and a balloon decoy meant to fool the interceptor's on-board sensors.
The test called for an early warning satellite to detect the launch and alert a missile defense command center at Colorado Springs, Colo., where ''battle managers'' were to cue a radar on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Those managers were to use information from the radar to formulate a plan and transmit it to the missile interceptor in an underground silo on Kwajalein. That would tell the interceptor's computers precisely when it should launch and track the target in space.
If all went as planned, the interceptor's weapon, known as a ''kill vehicle,'' would ram into the mock warhead 144 miles above the earth's surface about eight minutes after it launched from Kwajalein.
By sheer force of impact at a combined speed of 4.5 miles per second, the mock warhead would be destroyed.
The last such test, on July 8, 2000, was a stunning failure. The interceptor launched from Kwajalein Atoll but the kill vehicle failed to separate from its rocket booster.
As a result, the kill vehicle never saw the target.
An October 1999 effort succeeded while a January 2000 test failed.
Kadish said the Pentagon has mapped out a more frequent schedule of tests, including four to six over the next 18 months.
The expanded testing program, described in detail to Congress by Pentagon officials for the first time last week, drew strong criticism from missile defense skeptics at home and abroad.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that if the administration goes ahead with plans to build underground silos next year at Fort Greely, Alaska, for missile interceptors, it would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bars national missile defenses.
That, in turn, could spark a new arms race, he said.
''If those plans were realized in practice, they would seriously complicate negotiations and would signify the United States' exit from the ABM treaty,'' Ivanov said Friday in Moscow.
The administration wants Russia to agree to amend or replace the treaty with an arrangement permitting testing and deployment of defenses against long-range missiles.
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