WASHINGTON, Dec 31: The Pentagon failed to meet its goal of declaring a missile defence system operational in 2004 and critics said failures in testing the ambitious system show it simply does not work.

The latest test of the multibillion-dollar system ended in failure on Dec 15 when one of the interceptors intended to destroy an incoming enemy ballistic missile failed to launch on cue from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.

Four of the system's nine major tests have been failures, and the five successes have been achieved under tightly controlled conditions. Meanwhile, key components are absent, including a high-resolution, high-power, sea-based radar and two big satellite constellations.

President George W. Bush said two years ago he wanted the system up and running by September 2004. The Pentagon's Missile Defence Agency later said the intention was to make it operational by the end of 2004. Now Missile Defence Agency spokesman Rick Lehner says there is no firm timetable for activating it.

Creation of a missile defence system has been a goal of many US conservatives dating back to a space-based plan developed under President Ronald Reagan two decades ago. Bush touted his version during his re-election campaign.

The current approach, to shield America and its allies from missile attack by nations like North Korea, is based on the concept of using one missile to shoot down another before it can reach its target.

"What we have here is a developmental system that is well along," Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a recent briefing. "And at some point soon, it will have a modest capability" and can be "perfected and improved" over time.

Proponents argue even a rudimentary missile defence capability is better than none at all. But the latest failure presented another hurdle to the Pentagon's idea of deploying the system piece by piece rather than waiting for every element to be fully developed.

"The system has no demonstrated capability to work under realistic conditions. And so unless they just want it to be a sham, I don't see how they can declare that they have real operational capability," said Philip Coyle, chief weapons tester for the Pentagon from 1994 to 2001. At the current testing pace, it could be decades before the system is ready, Coyle said.

UNDETERRED: Rumsfeld sounded undeterred. "We had hoped that we would have some sort of a characterization that in 2004 we had a preliminary capability, an initial capability," he said.

"I'm not announcing it, but if you, for example, said that ... there was some threat that was evolving and it would be desirable to go out of a test mode and see the extent to which you could be in an operational mode, my impression is it wouldn't take long to get there."

The Dec 15 test was the system's first in two years. The previous one, on Dec 12, 2002, also was a failure, with the interceptor not separating from its booster rocket and missing its target by hundreds of miles (km).

The next test could come in March or April, Lehner said, although the cause of the Dec 15 failure remains unknown. The Pentagon plans to spend more than $50 billion over the next five years on missile defence and aims to weave in airborne, ship- and space-based assets.

It has installed six interceptor missiles in silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and one at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Vandenberg is due to get a second in January, Lehner said, with 10 more in Alaska sometime in 2005.

A Navy destroyer with long-range missile-tracking equipment began patrols in September in the Sea of Japan - the system's first naval component. Among future capabilities, the Pentagon envisions missiles based on ships that could bring down enemy missiles as they are launched. It also sees an airborne laser defence to destroy enemy missiles.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the recent test showed even the most basic elements of the system do not work. "The system is not ready for prime time. The booster rockets do not work.

The radar is limited in effectiveness. The kill vehicle (which zeroes in on an enemy warhead) has a spotty record. The computer system that coordinates all the elements still has serious kinks in it," Kimball said.

Kimball said the money spent on the system might be better used to address pressing concerns like ensuring nuclear weapons in former Soviet states do not fall into the hands of terrorists and improving security at US ports. -Reuters

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