America's defence shield is back on track with a bang

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The Independent US

They said the test did not really matter. They said the plan to set up the world's most ambitious defence system would proceed regardless.

But in the White House, the Pentagon and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there were no few sighs of relief in the early hours of yesterday when the latest test of America's proposed missile defence system was deemed a success.

The fourth test of the technology America hopes will help protect it against missile attacks from so-called rogue nations was conducted almost 150 miles above the sea. An interceptor "kill vehicle" found and destroyed a ballistic missile carrying a mock nuclear warhead.

"The early indication we have is that everything worked," Air Force Lt Gen Ronald Kadish, the director of the Pentagon's missile defence system, told a news conference less than an a hour after the test was concluded at 11.09pm Washington time.

It will take many weeks to analyse the results of the test, although Lt Gen Kadish said initial indications were that "we hit pretty accurately".

He added: "This test is just one stop on a journey. We will press on to the next test." The test began with the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, equipped with the fake warhead, from Vandenberg air base in California.

Exactly 21 minutes and 34 seconds later, an interceptor missile was launched from a site on Kwajalein Atoll, 4,800 miles away in the Marshall Islands.

Navigating by the stars and from information transmitted from the ground station on the Pacific island, the interceptor had to find the warhead rather than a large, black mylar balloon, released as a decoy.

It did so with no apparent difficulties. The "kill vehicle", a 55in-long device with its own propulsion, communications, infrared seeker and guidance and control systems, separated from its rocket booster as planned and rammed into the mock warhead at an altitude of 144 miles. At that point, both missiles were travelling at a speed of four and a half miles per second.

Reporters monitoring the test in a video-conference room in the Pentagon could see a white flash as the interceptor struck the missile. The video then switched to the mission control room on Kwajalein Atoll where military and civilian scientists broke into loud cheers and punched the air.

Yesterday, the White House said that President George Bush was "pleased" with the result. That may have been something of an understatement. Two of the previous three tests of the technology have failed and ­ given the Bush administration's aggressive pursuit of the programme ­ it desperately needed a positive result. From the perspective of Mr Bush, who is visiting Britain and the G8 summit in Genoa this week where missile defence is certain to be a topic of discussion, the timing could not have been better.

Trent Lott, the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate, said: "They hit a bullet with a bullet, and it does work. We can develop that capability."

Mr Bush has asked Congress for $8.3bn (£5.9bn) to finance missile defence research and testing in 2002, $3bn more than this year. This latest test cost about $100m alone.

The Bush administration is also exploring the feasibility of other missile defence weaponry, including an airborne laser, ship-based missile interceptors and space-based weapons. The system tested this weekend, using a land-based interceptor to hit the target during the midcourse of its flight, is the most technically advanced.

The failure of a previous test, in July last year, sealed a decision by former president Bill Clinton not to move forward with deployment of a national missile defence. Mr Clinton said the failure showed the technology was not yet sufficiently proved to be backed.

Since then, the Pentagon's missile defence contractors, including Boeing, which has the leading contract, have apparently improved their test preparations.

None of this will convince critics of the system, which America admits will breach the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty it signed with the Soviet Union. This latest test, a rerun of the three previous tests, took place only three days after the administration told Congress that the plan was destined to collide with the 1972 treaty within months.

The treaty bans the development of nationwide defences against long-range missiles and certain kinds of anti-missile testing. It was drawn up to head off a race to overwhelm each side's defences. Mr Bush revealed last week that he was actually accelerating the testing programme, with a plan to build underground silos next year at Fort Greely, Alaska.