U.S. missile defense system moves toward ‘go’
WASHINGTON- The military is in the final stages of readying its national ballistic missile defense system, with officials predicting it will be activated before the end of the year. But several questions remain unresolved, including how well the experimental missile interceptors work.
The Pentagon maintains that any defense against ICBMs is better than none, but critics challenge that the Bush administration is vastly overselling an expensive, unproven defense system.
There has been an expectation that the Bush administration will shortly declare to the world that the missile defense system is operational and on alert, but military officials said they know of no specific plans for such an announcement.
Such an announcement, however, would have both political and strategic value for the Bush administration.
To those who believe it will work, activating the system would fulfill a pledge by President Bush to have an operational missile defense system by the end of 2004. Such an announcement would also have greater value if it came before the Nov. 2 elections.
Bush has touted the system while campaigning for re-election.
“We want to continue to perfect this system, so we say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail American and the free world: you fire; we’re going to shoot it down,” he said in a stop at Ridley Park, Penn., on Aug. 17.
Military officials are less sanguine, stressing that the initial system will be modest and limited in capability, but will improve over time.
Critics of the system, like Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s former chief of testing, say Bush is flat wrong.
“Of course we don’t have any capability to do that,” he said. “For the president to sort of dare them (to fire missiles) is really misleading and even reckless.”
Estimates vary widely on how much the program will cost over its lifetime, with some reaching $100 billion or more. In 2004 and 2005, the Missile Defense Agency expects to spend a total of more than $10 billion.
Many of the doubts about the system, initially designed to protect the United States from an ICBM attack from North Korea and other possible threats in the western Pacific, arise from problems during high-profile tests.
In testing, which critics deride as highly scripted, the interceptors have gone five-for-eight when launched at target missiles. But two tests scheduled for this year have been delayed due to recently discovered technical problems.