LOS ANGELES, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- A rocket that could eventually become the first and only line of defense against a nuclear attack on the United States was to be launched sometime Saturday night with the goal of intercepting a target missile high above the Pacific Ocean.
The missile ready for launch Saturday from remote Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific will, if all goes according to plan, destroy a target missile to be launched 20 minutes earlier from Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles.
The test is the latest in the long and technologically daunting process of developing a means of shooting down nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles launched against the United States.
While the United States' determination to move the anti-missile project forward has drawn heated criticism at home and abroad, Saturday's launch is not seen as a realistic test of the system's thus-far primitive capabilities.
"There are artificialities in the test," Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. "We are testing to learn. We are not testing for 'pass-fail' on some sort of operational deployment."
The target missile emits a beacon that acts as a stand-in for a powerful ground-based radar not yet built. And, while the warhead will deploy with a large balloon intended to confuse the missile, the Pentagon expects in a real situation that an enemy missile would be equipped with far more sophisticated countermeasures.
"It will be one step forward on the journey," Kadish said. "If we have success Saturday, we will have increased our confidence to move on to more aggressive, complex tests."
Nevertheless, a successful kill Saturday would be the third in five tries since 1999. Critics of the entire plan, however, saw the test more as window dressing than solid science.
"Basically, it is a repeat of the last test," said Michael Levi, deputy director of the Strategic Security Project of the Federation of American Scientists. "Given that they declared the last test to be an overwhelming success, I don't see what they stand to gain."
Levi told United Press International that a series of successful tests would help keep public and congressional support behind the project even though the test conditions were unrealistically favorable and the entire system's technical feasibility was still questionable.
"I think the administration needs to show the country some successes in order to maintain support for the system," Levi said. "Just because they are taking first steps doesn't necessarily mean they'll get to where they want to go."
(UPI Pentagon Correspondent Pam Hess contributed to this report.)