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Cruise missile shot down in N.M. defense test

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WASHINGTON — The United States shot down a cruise missile with a Patriot PAC-3 missile over New Mexico Saturday in a successful test of its "theater" defense program to protect troops and bases from attack, the Pentagon said.

It was the fourth successful "hit-to-kill" intercept in a row and the first against a low-flying cruise missile for the upgraded version of the Patriot, which was used against Iraqi Scud missiles in the gulf war. The PAC-3 had earlier hit three Hera ballistic missiles at the edge of space.

"We had a successful intercept," Jen Canaff, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, told Reuters after the Patriot tracked and shattered an MQM-107 cruise missile over White Sands Missile Test range in New Mexico.

The Pentagon said preliminary data indicated that the 17-foot PAC-3 shattered the droning target missile at 8:15 a.m. MDT.

Unlike the three earlier tests near the edge of space over the past 16 months, Canaff said Saturday's intercept occurred at an altitude below 40,000 feet.

Slow-flying but highly accurate cruise missiles can attack at ground-hugging altitudes as low as 50-feet above the Earth, but the Pentagon said the specific altitude of Saturday's intercept was classified.

Unlike a controversial planned U.S. National Missile Defense (NMD) effort to protect the whole country from long-range attack, the "theater" program is designed to protect U.S. troops and bases from short- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles and aircraft.

The PAC-3 is being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. Boeing Co. makes the "seeker," which guides the Patriot to a target, and Raytheon Co. provides integration for components of the system.

A series of a dozen more tests of the upgraded Patriot are scheduled through next year in the U.S. development of several theater missile defense systems.

The Army and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization conducted three successful intercepts by the PAC-3 of higher-flying Hera ballistic missiles in March and September of last year and again last February.

At the same time that U.S. theater anti-missile systems are being developed, the Pentagon and aerospace firms are conducting research on weapons that could result in a limited NMD shield designed to protect U.S. cities from any future missile attack from states like North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

Russia and China are opposed to NMD, and critics of the plan say a recent test failure high over the Pacific Ocean—the second miss in three tries—proves the system cannot work.

President Clinton, under pressure from NMD supporters to proceed with the plan and critics to delay a decision, plans to decide later this year whether to take the first step and begin building an advanced radar for the system on wind-swept Shemya Island in Alaska next year.