WASHINGTON — The military is in the final stages of readying its national ballistic missile defense system, with officials predicting it will be activated before year's end. But several questions remain, including how well the experimental missile interceptors work.
The Pentagon maintains that any defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is better than none. Critics contend the Bush administration is vastly overselling an expensive, unproven defense system.
There has been an expectation that the administration will shortly declare that the missile defense system is operational and on alert. Military officials said they know of no specific plans for such an announcement.
Such an announcement would have political and strategic value for the 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 promoted 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 America 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, such as Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's former chief of testing, say Bush is 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."
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has said that, if elected, he would proceed more slowly with the missile defense system and take time for additional testing.
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.
Two tests scheduled for this year have been delayed due to recently discovered technical problems. The next test is now set for late November or early December, so it is unclear if it will take place before interceptors in Alaska go on alert. The test after that will take place in early 2005.
"In terms of political symbolism, the bottom line is that President Bush has met his commitment of four years ago to deploy an operational defense of the nation," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank in Washington.
"In terms of operational realities, it is a very rudimentary system that requires much further testing and could not stop a substantial attack against the nation," Thompson said.
The military has five interceptors in underground silos at Fort Greely in central Alaska, with plans to add one more by mid-October, and an additional 10 by the end of 2005.
Two interceptors will be put in the ground at a backup site, Vandenburg Air Force Base, Calif., in the next month, plus two more by the end of the next year.
A tracking radar on the Aleutian island of Shemya, and an early-warning radar at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., are both ready, as are command centers at Colorado Springs, Colo., and at Fort Greely, said Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency.
A Navy destroyer has begun patrolling the Sea of Japan with a newly upgraded Aegis radar capable of tracking any North Korean missile launches and feeding information into the missile defense network.
But some of these various pieces of the system are not yet linked to one another, Lehner said. He and other officials could not provide a specific time when the system will be ready in the coming months.
A major piece of the sensor network, an X-band radar system that will be mounted on a converted oil-drilling rig, is not expected to be ready for operational testing until the end of next year.
The high-resolution radar, which the military claims will be capable of discriminating targets from decoys far better than others in the sensor network, will be mounted on a mobile, converted oil-drilling rig, and will move to the Pacific and join the system. A new network of early-warning satellites would also substantially boost the military's ability to track a ballistic missile launch, officials say.
Also unsettled is the military's doctrine and authorities for launching the interceptors in a crisis — although such policies are expected to be decided on during the next few weeks.
Because an ICBM launched from Asia could reach the United States in less than half an hour, military officers may have to make quick decisions if an attack is under way. Such doctrine is intended to assist what the general in charge should do if, for example, the number of inbound missiles exceeded the number of interceptors available.
On the strategic end, Pentagon officials say they expect the existence of the system would serve to deter North Korea from using any ICBMs to attack, because the country's leaders would calculate their chance of successfully hitting a U.S. target as lower.
North Korea, which intelligence officials believe has an untested intercontinental ballistic missile, is regarded as the most immediate threat.
In the longer term, Iran could develop missiles capable of reaching the United States, officials say.
A radar in Britain, once it is upgraded in 2005, will allow Alaskan-based interceptors to target missiles launched from the Mideast across Europe toward North America, officials have said. In August, the administration also signed an agreement with Denmark and Greenland to upgrade a radar station at Thule, Greenland, which will also be a part of an Atlantic missile defense sensor network.
In addition, the Pentagon is in preliminary talks with Poland and possibly other Eastern European countries about the possibility of putting interceptors there. These could protect Europe as well as intercept U.S.-bound missiles earlier in flight.
China, meanwhile, which also has a small ICBM force — perhaps 20 missiles, according to intelligence estimates — has been fairly quiet about U.S. missile defense plans, Pentagon officials say. China, however, is modernizing and expanding its missile force beyond what near-term U.S. plans for missile defenses could stop.