WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is counting down to a rocket launch tonight that could change the course of U.S. defense policy and present the next president with one of the most contentious international arms control debates in decades.
Although much is riding on the outcome of the national missile defense system test, Defense Secretary William Cohen is trying to reduce expectations by saying it is not a make-or-break event.
In a sense, some missile defense critics agree. Regardless of the outcome, they believe President Clinton will move forward with building a nationwide shield against missiles.
Some Alaskans will be watching the test with keen interest. The Pentagon has indicated an Alaska site - either Fort Greely near Delta Junction or Clear Air Station near Nenana - is the likely home base for the missile defense system if it is built.
In addition, a high-tech radar system would be built in the western Aleutians as an early-warning outpost. The projects would bring millions of construction dollars to Alaska.
Cohen stressed that today's test, the last before Clinton makes his decision, is only one in a series of more than a dozen that will ultimately determine the feasibility of defending all 50 states against a limited attack of ballistic missiles.
``We are trying to take it step by step because it's very, very difficult technology we are trying,'' Cohen told reporters Thursday in Tampa, Fla.
The goal of the missile defense system is to destroy a hostile warhead in space by ramming it head-on with an interceptor missile.
``We are trying to hit a bullet with a bullet,'' Cohen said.
Many critics believe the technology is not feasible and the Pentagon's testing methods are fatally flawed. Other critics say that even if it worked the weapon would not be worth the international outcry against it - most notably Russia's threat to unravel other arms control treaties.
``Recent statements by Defense Secretary William Cohen indicate that the Clinton administration is on a path toward approval regardless of allied skepticism,'' the British American Security Information Council said Thursday.
Meanwhile, anti-nuclear activists were hoping to halt the test by positioning a ship in an area of the Pacific where a rocket stage is expected to splash down. Greenpeace planned to station a vessel about 110 miles offshore from Vandenberg Air Force Base, said Steve Shallhorn, the group's campaign director.
The Air Force has asked pilots and mariners to avoid the area during the test or risk damage or injury. Officials said the test could continue even with a ship in the zone.
Greenpeace also set up camp outside Vandenberg's main gate, about 180 miles northwest of Los Angeles. And a group of protesters not affiliated with Greenpeace threatened to delay the launch by breaking into the base.