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A city that once served as a cradle of American aviation has staked a new claim in the cutting-edge world of aerospace engineering with the welcome opening of a new $30 million missile-defense test facility in Cheektowaga.

The new Large Energy National Shock Tunnel expansion by the Calspan-UB Research Center is designed to save lives on the battlefield and aboard warships in battle zones around the world. It allows simulation testing of defensive weapons designed to hit incoming ballistic missile warheads -- in effect, using a bullet to hit a bullet already in flight.

Rep. Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania congressman whose committee controls a $37 billion military research budget, pointed out that we currently have no good defense against Iran's new short-range missiles or North Korea's just-tested intercontinental rocket that can reach the mainland United States. The Patriot missiles used with only partial success against Iraq's SCUDS during the Gulf War, he added, were air-defense missiles pressed into an emergency anti-missile role.

There was talk of the Calspan-based facility as a "national treasure," the best facility of its kind in the world. That should be a source of pride here, and the economic research spin-offs will benefit the company-university partnership as well. Taxpayers also save, because the $30 million cost is almost the price of just one of the trial-and-error missile firing tests it will replace.

At the end of the day, however, despite the laudable goals of saving taxpayer money and generating economic development, the real payoff could be in lives.

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