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Next we'll continue this week's look at the U.S. missile defense system. It has cost $60 billion since the start of the Bush administration, and there are a lot of questions about how well it works. Yesterday we took you to Fort Greely, Alaska, where the centerpiece of the system, the ground-based interceptor has been deployed. Today we will take you on board the USS Lake Erie in the waters off the coast of Hawaii for an effort to intercept a missile in flight. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER: The U.S. missile defense system is an intricate interweaving of various missile interceptor systems supported by advanced radars and satellite sensors. There is a sharp debate about its cost and its capabilities. But the system has seen meaningful progress at sea, says Lieutenant General Henry Obering, director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.

Lieutenant General HENRY OBERING (Director, Missile Defense Agency): The farthest along that we have today is probably our Aegis sea-based component. It has been through some pretty good operational testing to explore all of its envelope, or quite a bit of its envelope, of operation.

SHUSTER: It's early June on the foredeck of the USS Lake Erie, an Aegis cruiser. The Lake Erie is sailing in the deep, blue waters off Hawaii, and readying itself to try to shoot down another missile launched about 180 miles away near the island of Kauai. The U.S. Navy began the development of the Aegis combat system more than 30 years ago. Essentially, it was a marriage of advanced radar and signals capabilities with a variety of guided missiles deployed on cruisers and destroyers. Their task, defend aircraft carriers and the carriers' battle group. When the Bush administration decided to make a big push for missile defense, it figured that the missiles the Aegis ships were using against aircraft and other ships might be modified as missile interceptors. The key was the ship's advanced radars, says Lieutenant Commander Andrew Bates, the ship's former combat systems officer.

Lieutenant Commander ANDREW BATES (Former Combat System Officer, USS Lake Erie): This is the trademark octagonal array for the SPY-1 radar. Its military designation is SPY, so obviously it's pronounced spy. It's a happy coincidence.

SHUSTER: The SPY-1 radar panels are positioned on both the port and starboard sides of the ship as well as facing fore and aft. They give the ship full 360-degree eyes to watch the sea and skies. The Lake Erie is on alert for a missile attack, and the plan is to launch its own missiles, known as SM-2s, against the attacker. The ship's radar illuminators will guide the missile interceptors to the attacking missiles, explains Lieutenant Commander Bates.

Lieutenant Commander BATES: When that missile is heading towards its target, it's receiving uplink commands from the Aegis weapon system. But that final bit of guidance that it gets, just prior to intercept, comes from these illuminators, which will point at the target, shine a beam of RF energy onto that target. The reflection from the RF energy off of that target will be picked up by the missile and will be used to guide it in on its final stage.

SHUSTER: In the three days before the actual missile flight test, the Lake Erie's crew has been through two dry runs and one dress rehearsal that simulate missile attacks. Much of the key activity takes place in the darkened Combat Information Center. What little light there is comes from the glow of numerous computer and video screens.

Lieutenant Commander BATES: During the shipboard countdown, we are taking the system to a higher and higher state of readiness, which is what we would do if we were coming upon a vulnerability window where we had gotten intelligence that a launch may occur. At a certain point, we'll get to basically a stable sit-and-wait type of situation. The system's set up correctly, it's in a high state of readiness, and now the crew and the sailors here in CIC are looking for any indications of a ballistic missile launch.

SHUSTER: The Lake Erie is the same ship that back in February successfully shot down a disabled U.S. spy satellite that was threatening to fall out of orbit, carrying half a ton of toxic fuel. The Lake Erie's missile-defense system was not designed for that mission. But with modifications, the Missile Defense Agency determined it could do the job. In a radio hookup between the Pentagon and the Lake Erie, Rear Admiral Brad Hicks explained the difference between the satellite shot and the upcoming test flight.

Rear Admiral BRAD HICKS (USS Lake Erie): The satellite, we had a predicted time we were going to intercept it. We picked the time that we wanted to intercept it to optimize the probability of success. So the mission was totally different.

SHUSTER: The satellite was 130 miles above the earth, traveling at more than 5 miles per second. The missile to be intercepted in the Lake Erie's flight test will be only 12 miles high, moving at about a quarter of that speed.

(Soundbite of ship's bridge)

Commander RICH MARTEL (Executive Officer, USS Lake Erie): Left full rudder, starboard engine ahead full.

On the bridge on flight test day, Commander Rich Martel, the Lake Erie's executive officer, recalled February's satellite shot.

Commander MARTEL: Even in today's scenario, we know something is going to happen this morning, but the watchstanders still don't know when it's going to happen. In February we knew we should expect the satellite to pass through our area at this particular time. And in general on that day the crew was very calm. We had done a lot of training, we were prepared.

SHUSTER: As tension builds, Commander Martel takes to the ship's intercom to tell the crew if they want to watch the missile launch, they can go out on the fantail toward the stern of the ship.

Commander RICH MARTEL: No personnel on the flight deck or the missile deck, only on the fantail. In the event that the missile, once it takes off, self-destructs, all personnel should take cover against the bulkheads or inside the skin of the ship from the fantail. That's all. Don't give up the ship.

SHUSTER: Tension continues to build, and then on the internal net, "fireball", the code word for the launch of a hostile missile.

(Soundbite of anti-missile flight test at sea)

Unidentified Announcer: Fireball, Fireball, Fireball. Track 7Q55. Track lifting. Nine, eight, seven..

Lieutenant Commander BATES: There we go. Beautiful.

SHUSTER: Lieutenant Commander Bates says initial indications are that the attacking missile has been destroyed.

Lieutenant Commander BATES: We could see an explosion around the first missile that was launched. And at the same time that I visually saw the explosion, I heard over the internal nets, the missile system supervisor say, "Mark India," so mark intercept.

SHUSTER: Later, Rear Admiral Hicks speaking from the Pentagon pronounced the flight test a success.

Rear Admiral HICKS: Both SM-2s intercepted the target and destroyed it. We fired two to improve our probability of success, knowing that it's a terminal engagement. And they fired within a second and a half of each other.

SHUSTER: The Lake Erie has successfully tested SM-2 missiles against short-range missile attacks in the atmosphere and has destroyed medium-range missiles in the midcourse of attack using the SM-3. Even sharp critics of the Missile Defense Agency, like Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information, acknowledge that sea-based missile defenses do show some promise.

Mr. PHILIP COYLE (Senior Adviser, Center for Defense Information): The Navy has had a greater success rate in terms of successes where they've done flight intercept tests. They've had a greater success rate than the big ground-based system has had.

SHUSTER: And so the Navy is already deploying this missile-defense system on more of its cruisers and destroyers, for use, says the Lake Erie's captain, Ron Boxall, anywhere it's needed.

Captain RON BOXALL (USS Lake Erie): As you look at the proliferation of ballistic missiles throughout the world, I think it's myopic to view any specific country as the target. Our job is to produce the capability and go out and make it employable and available to the fleet and combatant commanders.

SHUSTER: Admiral Hicks says 15 ships have anti-missile capabilities now. Most are operating in the Pacific, with a few deployed in or near the Middle East.

Rear Admiral HICKS: We have now taken a look at what we require for the Fifth Fleet in the Arabian Gulf, and we, in fact, have assets in theater now. We've also had our first asset that operated in the eastern Mediterranean.

SHUSTER: In fact, U.S. missile defense is about to go global, with the inclusion of ground-based missiles stationed in Europe. Tomorrow the clash over U.S. missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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