WASHINGTON -- If successful, a test Tuesday of the Pentagon's anti-missile missile could move administration officials closer to recommending that President Clinton commit to deploying a nationwide missile defense.
A system of interceptor rockets, radars and computerized command centers -- a much scaled-down version of the space-based "star wars" defense envisioned by President Reagan in the 1980s -- could be deployed as early as 2005, although many hurdles remain.
If Tuesday's test goes as planned, a 121-pound "smart rock" will steer itself into the path of a mock warhead about 140 miles above the central Pacific Ocean, creating a collision that would reduce both objects to space dust. At least, that's the plan.
The "smart rock," actually a highly sophisticated missile interceptor, is still "learning," Pentagon officials say. And they're quick to say that while they hope for success, they will not be surprised if the interceptor misses the target. After all, they say, this is a testing program, and setbacks are to be expected.
This is not, however, just any run-of-the-mill testing program. At stake, in the Pentagon's view, is the nation's ability to defend itself against the kind of long-range missile threats that could emerge in the next decade.
North Korea, for example, is said to be developing a missile with enough range to reach American territory, although it has not tested it in flight and agreed recently to halt missile testing for the time being. No other non-NATO country, other than Russia and China, possesses an intercontinental ballistic missile.
If Tuesday's test succeeds, it could lead to a decision by Clinton as early as this summer to commit the United States officially to building a defense against missile attack at a cost of at least $12.7 billion. Defense Secretary William Cohen is scheduled to make his recommendation to Clinton in June.
If the test fails, there will be another chance as early as April to demonstrate that strategic missile defense is feasible, one of several criteria the president has set for deciding whether to deploy it.
Clinton also will take cost into account at a time when the armed forces are hard-pressed to buy the conventional weapons they say will be needed in the decades ahead. And there's the impact on relations with Russia and China, both of which are strongly opposed to a U.S. national missile defense.
In his 2001 budget, to be disclosed Feb. 7, Clinton is expected to ask Congress for an additional $2.2 billion for the program. That would buy an arsenal of 100 interceptors and pay for more testing and spare parts.
"This is a very high-priority program," chief Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Friday. "We are working very hard ... to get the president the information he needs from the technical side to make a decision sometime this summer."
"Obviously, if we have a series of tests that are deemed to be failures we couldn't say that this was ready to deploy," Bacon added.
If Clinton gives the go-ahead this summer, a missile defense could be ready to begin operating in 2005, although some Pentagon officials closely involved in the program think that is too ambitious a timetable.
The first major test of the missile interceptor -- known as a "kill vehicle," or by its Pentagon nickname, "smart rock" -- was last Oct. 2. The first test using the final, combat-ready interceptor is not scheduled until 2003.
Although the missile used in the October test encountered some problems en route to its target, it scored a hit and prompted the Pentagon to assert it had demonstrated that a warhead carrying a nuclear or biological weapon can be destroyed and neutralized.
Critics are less certain. They doubt the reliability of a national missile defense and fault the Pentagon for planning only three interceptor tests before recommending a deployment decision to Clinton this summer.
"Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming test, it is already clear that the three tests will not provide sufficient basis to determine whether the ... system will work," said Tom Collina of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which opposes deployment.