LOS ANGELES, Dec. 2 (UPI) -- The latest test of the United States' fledgling missile defense program was postponed until Sunday night because of what the Pentagon said was poor weather at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
As rain moved down the California coast shortly after sundown Saturday, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization decided to temporarily scrub the launching of a target missile that was intended to have been destroyed by an interceptor missile launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific.
"The poor weather did not meet range safety requirements," the Defense Department said in a brief statement. "The intercept test has been rescheduled for Sunday ... contingent upon improvement of weather conditions."
Rain was forecast to fall in the area around Vandenberg, however, through Sunday afternoon with increasing winds off the ocean gusting up to 35 miles per hour raising the possibility of still another postponement.
Sunday's rescheduled 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.
The system, which proponents readily admit is in the infancy of its infancy, is being designed to send a missile streaking through the skies at high speed thousands of miles to collide with another missile hurtling toward the United States.
The missile launched from Vandenberg was expected to fly about 5,000 miles before being destroyed by the interceptor some 144 miles above the Earth.
While the United States' determination to move the anti-missile project forward has drawn heated criticism at home and abroad, this weekend'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 broadcasts a beacon signal 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 ... we will have increased our confidence to move on to more aggressive, complex tests."
Nevertheless, a successful kill Sunday wouild 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.
A better use of the money, Levi opined, would be supporting diplomatic efforts to reduce the world's nuclear stockpile.
"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 Pamela Hess contributed to this report.)