Missile-defence test comes at pivotal time


Washington : The Pentagon plans to conduct a test of its missile-defence system in the next few days that could be crucial for US President George W. Bush's effort to get Congressional support for deploying the shield to Eastern Europe.

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The test comes as the Democratic-controlled Congress debates whether to fund a Pentagon request for preparing locations in the Czech Republic and Poland to house a radar site and 10 interceptor missiles to protect against Iran's growing missile capabilities.

A recent, provisional House vote removed $160 million from missile-defence funding. A successful test could help Bush persuade Congress to restore the money, but a failure could harden the drive by the centre-Left opposition Democrats to slow the process.

The Pentagon scuttled its original schedule for the test to be conducted Thursday morning, because of poor weather near Alaska, where the target missile would be launched.

Officials have tentative plans to conduct the test Friday, but a storm might delay that too, pushing the test into the weekend, said Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defence Agency (MDA).

If weather conditions are good, a target missile will be launched from Kodiak Island off the Alaskan mainland. About 20 minutes later, an interceptor missile will be fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Los Angeles.

Land- and sea-based radars will track the "enemy" missile and help guide the interceptor to what the Pentagon hopes will be a successful hit in space.

The Democrats want to invest money in missile-defence technologies that have proven to have more immediate value to counter short- and medium-range missiles as opposed to the long-range system planned for Europe that would shoot down enemy missiles in space.

Sceptical that the technology is ready to tackle the challenge, Democrats have pointed out that the long-range system has had only one successful test in the last five years. Democratic critics don't want to fund the initiative until Poland and the Czech Republic have formally agreed to host the anti-missile bases.

Chris Taylor, an MDA spokesman, said the Pentagon does not schedule tests to coincide with congressional funding debates or the ongoing negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic. The test was planned months ago, he said.

"We're confident the test will do what it is intended to do," Taylor said.

Bush's plans to deploy a system to Eastern Europe by 2013 have sparked a diplomatic crisis with the Russian government, which believes that the system is directed against its nuclear arsenal.

Missile defence has been a top priority for Bush since he took office in 2001. He has hiked spending and removed bureaucratic constraints to speed up development, but critics contend the system still faces major technical challenges and that the testing does not take place under realistic conditions.

A target missile shot down last year did not carry counter-measures like balloons or chaff to confuse the radar, adding to allegations the Pentagon scripts tests to help ensure success.