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Rumsfeld a bit skeptical of missile shield

FORT GREELY, Alaska – After his first look inside the nerve center of the U.S. missile defense system, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Sunday sounded a note of caution about expectations that interceptors poised in underground silos here would work in the event of a missile attack by North Korea.

Rumsfeld climbed down a steel ladder into one of 10 silos that house single 54-foot-long missile interceptors. If ordered by President Bush, or a successor, one or more of the rockets would blast into the sky and race at more than 18,000 mph to launch a small “kill vehicle” at an enemy warhead as it soared through space.

An 11th interceptor is to be installed at Greely today, officials said.

Asked at a news conference later whether he believed the missile shield was ready for use against a North Korean missile like the one test-fired unsuccessfully July 4, Rumsfeld said he would not be fully persuaded until the multibillion-dollar defense system has undergone more complete and realistic testing.

He alluded to his own skeptical nature. “I want to see it happen,” he said. “A full, end-to-end” demonstration is needed “where we actually put all the pieces” of the highly complex and far-flung missile defense system together and see whether it would succeed in destroying a warhead in flight.

“That just hasn’t happened,” he said, adding that some elements of the missile defense system are yet to come on line, including some of the radars and other sensors used to track the target missile.

He declined to say when he thought the missile defense system would reach the point of full reliability.

Later, in nearby Fairbanks, Rumsfeld met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov. They discussed the situation in the Middle East and in Afghanistan as well as Russian concern about an announced U.S. plan to remove nuclear warheads from some Trident long-range missiles aboard submarines and replace them with conventional warheads for potential use on short notice against terrorist targets.

“I would like to stress this point: These are preliminary (U.S.) plans, and for sure these plans raise Russian concern,” Ivanov said during a joint news conference with Rumsfeld at a lodge on the banks of the Chena River. “There can be different solutions” to the problem, such as using cruise missiles in that role, he added.

Brig. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, program director for the ground-based interceptor system, told Rumsfeld that on Thursday an interceptor based at a second launch site, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is scheduled to be tested against a target missile launched into the Pacific from Alaska’s Kodiak Island.

That will be the first full-up test of the latest version of the interceptor and its “kill vehicle,” a device attached to the nose of the interceptor. Once it separates from the interceptor’s three-stage booster, the “kill vehicle” is designed to use its own propulsion system and optical sensors to lock onto its target and, by ramming into it at high speed, obliterate the warhead and any payload it might carry.

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