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The BBC's Fiona Werge
"The US delegation is having to defend the entire misile defence project"
 real 56k

Saturday, 8 July, 2000, 01:13 GMT 02:13 UK
Glitch delays missile test
US interceptor vehicle
'Kill Vehicle': the miniature interception device at the heart of the US missile defence system
A technical problem discovered in a target missile has caused a delay of at least two hours in the test of a controversial US missile defence system.

The test - the third so far - is being watched closely worldwide, as it could set the stage for President Bill Clinton to approve a full scale system to protect the US from ballistic missiles.

But ahead of the test, 50 US Nobel laureates signed an open letter to President Clinton urging him to abandon the project, which they called "premature, wasteful and dangerous".

There has also been sharp criticism of US plans from Beijing, where US arms controls negotiators are currently holding talks with their Chinese counterparts.


The system would aim to put Taiwan in a sphere of protection. This would be blatant interference in Chinese affairs

Zhu Rongji, Chinese Prime Minister

The talks are aimed at reopening a dialogue on arms control issues, which was cut off by China last year in response to the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict.

Interference

But the meeting is likely to be dominated by the US missile defence proposals, which foresee both a National Missile Defence (NMD) shield and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) to protect US military installations abroad.

On Thursday, China's Prime Minister Zhu Rongji angrily attacked both US anti-ballistic missile schemes. "China is categorically opposed to the TMD system," he told a news conference in Rome.

Chinese Anti-Nato protest
Relations soured after the bombing of the Belgrade embassy
"The system would aim to put Taiwan in a sphere of protection. This would be blatant interference in Chinese affairs," Mr Zhu said.

China regards neighbouring Taiwan as a renegade state.

America's allies in Europe have not been so outspoken.

But there is widespread concern in European capitals about the possible implications of Washington going ahead with the programme.

Star Wars

Many commentators in Europe have compared it to former President Reagan's controversial 'Star Wars' plan. Mr Reagan wanted to build a system which could shoot down enemy missiles from space.

The Pentagon says its anti-ballistic missile system is less ambitious and is aimed primarily at repulsing attacks by what it calls "rogue states", such as Iraq or North Korea.

But in the letter to President Clinton, organised by the Federation of American Scientists, ask what North Korea would "gain by attacking the United States except its own destruction?"

North Korean missile
Washington fears North Korean missile attack

The outcome of this latest test - which follows one successful and one failed test - will be crucial in determining President Clinton's final decision on whether to go ahead with the $60bn system.

The plan is for a missile armed with a dummy warhead to be fired over the Pacific Ocean from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The launch is scheduled to take place in a four-hour window, starting at 1900 PST (0200 GMT Saturday).

Then an 'interceptor' rocket will be launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, 8,000 km (5,000 miles) away, in an attempt to ram and destroy the missile mid-air.

Protests

The international environmental group Greenpeace says that a team of its activists has entered the Vandenberg base, and is moving towards the launch pad to try and disrupt the test.

However, officials at Vandenberg say they have no indication that activists are inside the base.

A Greenpeace ship is sailing towards one of the five hazard zones designated ahead of the test.

Prominent US arms experts have questioned whether the system can distinguish between real ballistic missiles and decoys which would probably accompany any missile attack on American targets.

The 50 US scientists who signed the letter to President Clinton say that the planned system "would offer little protection and would do grave harm to this nation's core security interests".


any movement toward deployment would be premature, wasteful and dangerous

Letter signed by 50 US Nobel Laureates

They warn that any move to set up NMD or TMD could provoke a new arms race in ballistic missiles with Russia and China.

However, opinion polls in the United States have shown widespread support for the missile defence plan, despite concerns about its effectiveness.

The Pentagon said that weather conditions looked good and that everything was on schedule for the test to go ahead.

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See also:

06 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
US missiles: China's view
07 Jul 00 | Media reports
Text of scientists' anti-missile letter
04 Jun 00 | Europe
Hard bargaining at the Kremlin
01 Jun 00 | Europe
Clinton offers Star Wars deal
23 May 00 | Europe
Bush unveils nuclear policy
28 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
US-China military ties 'on track'
27 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
China-US: A turbulent year
16 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
US agrees embassy compensation
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