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A U.S. interceptor rocket designed to destroy long-range ballistic missiles in space failed to destroy a mock warhead fired over the Pacific last week, Defense Department officials say.

The apparent setback comes at a crucial time for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the "Star Wars" antimissile project that is based on interceptor technology."It absolutely is at the focus of the whole SDI debate," said Matthew Bunn of the Arms Control Association, a private group generally critical of SDI. "If they can't get that to work right, it's going to mean major political and schedule problems."

The Bush administration is asking Congress to increase SDI spending in 1993 by nearly one-third, to $5.4 billion.