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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (November 14, 1998 -AFP)---The vast atoll of Kwajalein which is used for testing ballistic missiles is the "gem in the crown" for the United States, according to the commander of the U.S. Army's Space and Missile Defense Command Lt. General John Costello.

The atoll is leased by the Marshall Islands to the United States who use it as a target for missiles fired from the U.S. and as a test site for star-wars style technology.

In an interview this week Costello told AFP (Agence France-Presse) the importance of Kwajalein would grow as missile defense programs move to a more advanced level of testing.

Kwajalein is important and will become "more significant in the future" with the high priority the U.S. government is placing on theater and national missile defense programs.

"Kwajalein is the singular place where all the capabilities exist to gauge the success or failure of (missile defense) systems," he said.

Costello's observations are good news for the Marshall Islands, which is preparing to begin renegotiating financial terms of its free association agreement with the United States in 1999.

Last week, Finance Minister Tony deBrum told the country's parliament Kwajalein was the "cornerstone" of the relationship between the two nations.

Kwajalein, a boomerang shaped necklace of coral islands in the central Pacific, houses some of the world's most sophisticated computers, missile tracking equipment and launch facilities to fire missiles to intercept incoming "re-entry vehicles" carried on missiles launched from California.

U.S. officials estimate they have invested more than four billion dollars at the base.

Costello said individual missiles and component parts of defense systems were being tested now at the missile range in White Sands, New Mexico.

But Kwajalein is the only place all of the components could be combined in what he called tests for the "family of (missile defense) systems."

"These tests have to shift to Kwajalein because there is no other place to do it," he said.

"We can't test the full capability (of systems) at White Sands. If we tell Americans that a national defense system will work, it better work.

"The only place in the world to do precision testing (needed to confirm whether the missile defense systems work) is at Kwajalein. The resources and investment we've made over the years -- we can't pack it up and move it anywhere else."

Despite Kwajalein's apparent importance to the United States, the army is conducting a rigorous modernization program at the missile range in line with continuing U.S. Congressional funding reductions, Costello said.

In today's climate of budget cuts in Washington Kwajalein must make maximum use of its resources, he added.

"We're pushing hard for Kwajalein range modernization," he said.

"It's good for the future of the range." Kwajalein suffered an 11 million dollar budget cut in the recently approved budget.

Though this makes it more difficult for the army to do its work at Kwajalein, Costello said, "the cuts at Kwajalein were not as dramatic as the cuts to the army's budget in other areas."

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz WWW: http://www.afp.com/english/

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