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The Pentagon has set a July 7 target date for a decisive test of a national missile defense system. A missile interceptor will try to collide in space with a mock warhead over the central Pacific Ocean, officials said Tuesday.

The last such intercept attempt failed in January, although the first try, last October, succeeded. An announcement of the date for the twice-delayed flight test was to be made Tuesday by Jacques Gansler, the Pentagons technology chief, and Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which is running the missile defense project. Other officials disclosed the date and said Kadish and Gansler would provide details on test preparations.

Although July 7 is the target date, the Pentagon might wait until the early hours of July 8 if weather conditions require. The test originally was planned for May, then was pushed back to late June to correct problems related to the failure of the January attempted intercept. A wiring problem caused the latest delay.

The Pentagon has come under fire recently by critics who believe the concept of intercepting long-range missiles outside the Earths atmosphere is flawed because an attacking nation could fool the U.S. interceptor with decoys. The Pentagon acknowledges that decoys are a long-term challenge but says the interceptors will be able to overcome the kind of crude decoys likely to be encountered in the short run.

A panel of independent experts raised a variety of concerns about the program in a report to the Pentagon this month. The panel, headed by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch, said it believed the Pentagon might have to slow down the project but that the system eventually could be made to work as envisioned.

The idea is to use a combination of powerful radars, ground-launched missile interceptors based in Alaska, and high-speed computers to protect all 50 U.S. states against an attack by 30 or fewer long-range missiles.

The outcome of the July test will be closely watched on both sides of the intensifying debate over national missile defense. It likely will determine whether Defense Secretary William Cohen recommends to President Clinton that he give the go-ahead this fall to begin constructing the main radar in the Aleutian Islands.

Other factors to be weighed by Clinton are the projects cost, the impact on arms control and an assessment of the threat facing the United States of potential missile attacks by North Korea and other hostile nations.

If the start of construction is delayed beyond 2001, the Defense Department likely will not meet its goal of having the missile defense network ready for use by the end of 2005. By that date, North Korea may have a long-range missile capable of striking U.S. territory, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.

AviationNow.Com, 20.06.2000