The Ground-based Midcourse missile Defense (GMD) system aced a test against a long-range ballistic missile target, just as Congress is poised to decide the financial fate of plans to extend the GMD system to Europe.

In the test, a target missile was sent aloft from the Kodiak Launch Complex at Kodiak, Alaska, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and The Boeing Co. [BA] reported.

Then a GMD interceptor took off 17 minutes later from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The test involved an operationally configured rocket booster system and an exo-atmospheric, or above the atmosphere, kill vehicle that slammed into the target, an old but refurbished intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and annihilated it.

The upgraded early warning radar at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., was the primary engagement radar for the test, conducted by operational crews at the Missile Defense Integrated Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

With Boeing leading the GMD effort, industry partners include Raytheon Co. [RTN], Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB], and Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC].

This was a re-run of an abortive test in May that had to be canceled because the target missile in that attempt failed to achieve sufficient altitude, resulting in a “no- test.”

In the latest, successful test, the exercise was designed to evaluate the performance of several elements of the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS), MDA stated after the test concluded.

Mission objectives included demonstrating the ability of the Upgraded Early Warning Radar at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., to acquire, track and report on objects. The test also evaluated the performance of the interceptor missile’s rocket motor system and exoatmospheric kill vehicle, which is the component that collides directly with a target warhead in space to perform a hit to kill intercept using only the force of the collision to totally destroy the target warhead.

Initial indications are that the rocket motor system and kill vehicle performed as designed. Program officials will evaluate system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test.

The target also was tracked successfully by the Sea-Based X-band (SBX) radar and an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense ship using onboard SPY-1 radar. The Missile Defense Agency is developing and deploying an extensive network of land and sea-based radars to detect and track all types of ballistic missiles and to provide targeting information to interceptor missiles through the Command, Control, Battle Management and Communication (C2BMC) system.

This was the seventh GMD intercept overall, and the second intercept with an operationally configured interceptor since September 2006.

“Today’s successful test is the team’s second intercept in less than 13 months and further demonstrates GMD’s evolution to a robust and reliable capability for the warfighter,” said Pat Shanahan, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems. “With another intercept under our belts, we have even greater confidence that the GMD system, if called upon in a real-world scenario, will defend the nation against a limited ballistic missile attack,” said Scott Fancher, Boeing vice president and program director for GMD.

The Boeing-led test was highly complex, involving a wide range of assets, including the SBX radar. SBX, a powerful new sea-based sensor developed by Boeing, tracked the target missile to prepare for the next GMD flight test, which will see SBX provide target updates to an in-flight interceptor for the first time.

This new GMD test win occurred as controversy is swirling around plans to form a third GMD installation in Europe, adding to the two existing sites at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg in California.

While the House pushed a defense authorization measure to cut all $160 million that President Bush requested toward beginning the GMD interceptor silos in Poland in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, assuming the Poles agree to host the site, the Senate Appropriations Committee version of a separate defense appropriations bill would cut only $85 million from the overall European GMD program that also includes a radar site in the Czech Republic.

Eventually, Congress will have to produce final versions of the defense authorization bill, and the separate defense appropriations bill that actually provides money for the Pentagon in fiscal 2008, which begins today.

Proponents of the European GMD system say it is critical to install the shield, pointing to the threat of missiles that might be launched toward European nations from Middle Eastern countries such as Iran.

The move to erect the shield comes after Iran launched multiple missiles in a massive test; launched a missile from a submerged submarine; and flouted world opinion by plunging forward with a nuclear materials development program that Iran says is for peaceful electrical generation purposes, but which Western nations believe will lead to Iran producing nuclear weapons.

As well, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Israel should be wiped from the map.

All of this is disquieting, U.S. leaders assert, and therefore a shield must be erected against missiles that Iran might launch at targets in Europe or the United States. They add that the GMD system planned for the Czech Republic and Poland would be purely defensive.

But Russian leaders have alleged that the GMD interceptors could be used to kill Russian ICBMs.?U.S. leaders have said that’s untrue, adding that the GMD interceptors don’t have the speed to catch Russian ICBMs. Even if they did, there will be but 10 interceptors in Poland, hardly a match for the hundreds of nuclear warheads in the Russian arsenal.

An American university professor, Theodore A. Postol, professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, some time ago said the Russians are correct.

In a luncheon of the Center for Media and Security at a hotel in Washington, D.C., Postol repeated his assertion, saying that MDA and others in the United States provided “misinformation” to Russia and to U.S. allies in Europe. He sees “a serious misrepresentation being made.”

While Americans say the GMD interceptors are capable of 6.3 kilometers per second, Postol said he estimates their top speed at something more than 9 kilometers per second, which would suffice to intercept Russian ICBMs. Otherwise, he said, the interceptors wouldn’t have the capability to defeat Iranian missiles.

But at another point during the luncheon, Postol said, “This system has no chance of ever working.”

The MDA delivered a tongue-in-cheek retort, thanking Postol for stating that GMD interceptors are highly capable, not only against their intended purpose of defeating the modest missilery of a small-time power such as Iran, but also against the very best ICBMs of a world-class missile power such as Russia.

In a dead-pan response, the MDA stated that it “is encouraged by Dr. Theodore Postol’s recent characterization which implies an effective missile defense against very advanced weapons.”

While MDA indicated it finds that characterization of the GMD system highly flattering, MDA cannot agree with it.?”MDA stands by its figures, which are real, not hypothetical and are derived from actual hardware and software performance data from actual flight tests,” the MDA rebuttal stated.

“Dr. Postol’s calculations are overly optimistic and do not accurately reflect detection, tracking and fire control solution times; acceleration profiles from our flight tests, with actual payload weights and propellant performance; minimum delta velocities required to destroy the targets; and what we know about Russian” ICBMs.

Postol, the featured guest at the luncheon, was paired with Simon Limage, deputy chief of staff to Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee with jurisdiction over the GMD program.

It was her panel that proposed the $160 million cut of all the funds requested for the site in Poland.

Limage said the GMD system should undergo more testing before it is deployed in Europe. “We need more testing of the new system,” he said.

Tauscher said defense of Europe from Iranian missile attacks could be accomplished as well by deploying the Aegis sea-based ballistic missile defense system.

Postol voiced a similar view, saying, “There is no reason the Aegis couldn’t do it as well.”

He also was asked by Space & Missile Defense Report, even if the GMD interceptors are capable of killing Russian ICBMs, why does that matter, unless one postulates that the United States would take advantage of a capability of defeating Russian ICBMs by launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on Russia.

Postol responded that “if you want to debate about whether it really matters, you can have that debate.” But he argued, that isn’t the point. The point, he continued, is that the United States should “never lie,” though perhaps it might be appropriate not to give information to other nations.

He also said that for defense of Europe from Middle Eastern missiles, there is no need for the radar to be installed in the Czech Republic. Rather, he said, it would be possible to devise a system that would include a double radar in Turkey, with one radar aimed to the southeast toward, say, Iran, while the other radar would be aimed in the opposite direction to track long-range missiles aimed toward Europe or the United States.

Asked whether Tauscher sees any merit in the GMD system, Limage said, “She does.” However, he continued, “she doesn’t see it as trumping” other ballistic missile defense systems.

After the test Friday, the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance asserted that the successful intercept should increase confidence that the GMD system works as intended.

“The remarkable technical feat demonstrated … for the seventh time clearly gives our country security and reassurance that the current deployed 23 Ground Based Interceptors deployed in California and Alaska can and will protect our public from long-range ballistic missiles,” MDAA concluded in a statement.