Bush Ordering Limited Missile Shield
The system's effectiveness will no doubt become the focal point of debate in Congress, which must still approve $1.5 billion in additional funds over the next two years to put in place the administration's bare-bones system in two states. Since Mr. Bush took office, Congress has approved about $8 billion a year for research in missile defenses.
The announcement came as the United States is once again in a tense standoff with North Korea, whose missile program and nuclear ambitions reinvigorated the drive for missile defenses in the late 1990's, and became a centerpiece of Mr. Bush's campaign for president. Today, he was careful not to oversell the amount of protection it could provide, and administration officials acknowledged that the initial system would be easily overwhelmed by any attack from Russia or China.
"While modest, these capabilities will add to America's security and serve as a starting point for improved and expanded capabilities, " Mr. Bush said in a statement.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who led an independent panel in 1998 that described a growing missile threat from North Korea, Iraq and Iran, called today's approach "a start" which, he added, was "better than nothing.'
Under the plan, the military would field a total of 10 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California that by 2004 would be able to defend the United States against strikes from a few long-range missiles. An additional 10 interceptors would be fielded in Alaska in 2005.
White House and Pentagon officials called the new "test bed" system a prototype, but insisted it would constitute a first step in defending against an accidental launching or against hostile states that have only a few missiles.
The decision comes six months after the United States formally withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which lifted constraints on the Pentagon to test and field a system to shoot down long-range and short-range missiles.
The initial system is designed to give the United States a limited defense against missiles launched by nations like North Korea — and eventually, Iraq and Iran. While the administration said it was a coincidence, the timing of the announcement coincides with threats by North Korea to resume production of plutonium at its main nuclear site, and perhaps to conduct new tests of its long-range Taepo Dong missile.
In deciding to announce the plan today, the administration is essentially short-circuiting the debate over whether the systems works, just as withdrawing from the treaty skirted the question of whether the United States could legally do so. Putting the system in place would also allow Mr. Bush to fulfill his campaign pledge to field the beginnings of antimissile system by the end of his first term.
The action that Mr. Bush ordered today caps nearly two decades of highly contentious debate over the size, scope and cost of system to defend the United States against a missile attack.
The most ambitious version of missile defense was President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative of 1983. He envisioned a space-based impenetrable shield against the Soviet Union's arsenal of thousands of missiles. That effort, called "Star Wars" by its critics, foundered until it was killed by the Clinton administration.
Even the program's staunchest supporters acknowledged today that the Pentagon would be fielding a research-and-development program that had many kinks to work out.For example, the radar for the system has not yet been built and the booster rockets that lift the interceptors into space are unreliable. Pentagon officials said today that they would upgrade existing radars for now and try to work out problems with the booster rockets by next fall.
"President Bush's announcement today that he plans to deploy
missile defense systems starting in 2004 violates common sense by
determining to deploy systems before they have been tested and shown
to work," said Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman
of the Armed Services Committee.
"The case for deploying a national missile defense system has never been more clear," said Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "Today, the United States cannot stop a single ballistic missile headed for an American city," he said. "The consequences of such an attack would be devastating."
In addition to Congressional support, the administration would need approval from Britain to upgrade a long-range radar system at the Royal Air Force base at Fylingdales, and from Denmark to upgrade a similar radar complex at Thule Air Base in northern Greenland.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has been holding discussions with British and Danish ministers, and American officials expect agreements to be reached. The British and Danish radars would provide early warning of a missile attack against the eastern United States from the Middle East.
The plan announced today envisions three layers of defenses against short-, medium- and long-range missiles. The military would counter short- and medium-range missile threats with upgraded versions of the Patriot missiles used in the Persian Gulf war, in 1991.
As many as 20 sea-based interceptors would be placed on existing Aegis-equipped Navy cruisers and destroyers to knock down ballistic missiles shortly after their launching.
Land-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., would be aimed at hitting missiles after they have left the atmosphere. The plan announced today calls for placing 16 interceptors at Fort Greely and four at Vandenberg.
Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said Pentagon officials have confidence that a limited working system can be put in place by 2004, even though the latest test of the ground-based system failed last week. Five out of eight tests of the ground-based system have succeeded, he noted. "Test, fix, test, fix, that's what we're doing," General Kadish said.
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