WASHINGTON – President Bush will deploy a limited defense system to protect the nation against ballistic missiles by 2004 even though officials admit that the system isn't ready yet.
Defense Department officials said the new missile defense architecture is not final nor fixed, but rather represents an "evolutionary approach" that could include changing the number, type and location of systems deployed to meet changing threats and take advantage of technological developments.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that this was a modest start to make good on Bush's pledge to combat 21st-century threats.
"The overall thrust of the policy, of course, is focused, as the president made clear in 1999 when he ran for office and promised to do what he is doing today, on threat assessment to the United States from potentially hostile nations or from rogue states," Fleischer said.
When he was campaigning for president, Bush promised to build an anti-missile shield, and earlier this year he pulled out of an anti-ballistic missile treaty to advance the plan.
"When I came to office, I made a commitment to transform America's national security strategy and defense capabilities to meet the threats of the 21st century," Bush said in a statement.
"Today I am pleased to announce we will take another important step in countering these threats by beginning to field missile defense capabilities to protect the United States as well as our friends and allies," he continued.
Administration officials have said previously they hoped to begin deployment of a rudimentary system by September of 2004.
The plan includes building 10 ground-based interceptor missiles at Fort Greeley, Alaska, by 2004 and an additional 10 interceptors by 2005 or 2006.
This is supposed to provide short-term emergency capability before a fully operational missile defense system could be deployed within years. The missiles could intercept missiles from countries such as North Korea.
Bush called the initial stage "modest," but said, "These capabilities will add to America's security and serve as a starting point for improved and expanded capabilities later as further progress is made in researching and developing missile defense technologies and in light of changes in the threat."
Bush's announcement came six days after the latest test of the system failed when an interceptor rocket did not separate from its booster rocket and destroy a mock Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile as planned.
Three of eight tests of the ground-based system since 1999 have been judged successes by the military.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that trial and errors are expected at the cutting edge of technology and no one considers the recent failure a setback.
"I think that anyone who thinks about it understands that, when you're at the leading edge of technology, you expect that there are going to be — you're going to learn and gain knowledge both by your successes and also by your failures. It's just something that's a reality in research and development and in science and technological programs," he said.
The initial Bush plan is more limited than the Strategic Defense Initiative envisioned by President Reagan in 1983 that became known as "Star Wars."
Still, Bush expanded the program significantly from the ground-based one pursued by President Clinton.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said in October that "moving forward on missile defense ... is an essential part of a strategy to provide the range of capabilities necessary to defend against the broad spectrum of new threats and challenges that we will confront in the 21st century."
The likely next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., lauded the decision to proceed on missile defense, which received $7.8 billion in funding in the 2003 budget. Hunter said an additional $1.5 billion over the next two years will also be needed.
"Today, the United States cannot stop a single ballistic missile headed for an American city," said Hunter, R-Calif., who chairs Armed Services subcommittee on military research and development. "The consequences of such an attack would be devastating, and the danger continues to grow as nations such as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran continue to develop, purchase, and sell advanced ballistic missile technologies."
But David Sirota, spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, questioned Bush's priorities.
"If George Bush thinks we are so flush with cash that we can afford billions to deploy a technology that might not even work, then why has he repeatedly rejected funding for basic security like border patrol, Coast Guard and immigration services that we know is desperately needed to prevent another September 11th?" he said.
The Pentagon has begun conducting tests with short-range missile-defense systems that were prohibited by the ABM Treaty and has built and tested mobile and sea-based sensors to track missiles.
"Our missile-defense program since 2001 has demonstrated that missile technology, in particular hit-to-kill technology, actually works," Wolfowitz said. "We actually can hit a bullet with a bullet."
Once U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty became official last summer, the Pentagon moved quickly to start work at Fort Greeley — 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks — on six underground silos for missile interceptors.
The treaty had barred construction of such weapons by either the United States or Russia. Bush gave Russia six-months notice of the withdrawal in December 2001.
The Bush administration claims the missile defense announcement is not related to North Korea's recent admission that it had a secret program to enrich uranium to make nuclear weapons.
Bush cited North Korea as a threat when he promised during his campaign to build an anti-missile safety net. Bush also included North Korea in his "axis of evil."
"Throughout my administration, I have made clear that the United States will take every necessary measure to protect our citizens against what is perhaps the greatest danger of all — the catastrophic harm that may result from hostile states or terrorist groups armed with weapons of mass destruction, and the means to deliver them," Bush said in his statement.
The United States has asked to use a radar complex in northern England as part of a global missile defense shield, the British government said Tuesday.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's Downing Street office said the government had made no decision on the written request to use the Royal Air Force base at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire.
American officials also plan to work closely with Denmark and Greenland, Fleischer said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.