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U.S.: Test Failures Won't Deter Deployment Of Missile-Defense System

The United States is embarking on the deployment of a limited antimissile shield to guard against a surprise missile attack. President George W. Bush says the first elements of the system will be in place by 2004.

Washington, 18 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government says it is ready to begin deploying what it calls a limited missile-defense shield by 2004, despite problems in early testing of the system.

U.S. President George W. Bush, in ordering the deployment yesterday, issued a statement saying the shield is meant to protect Americans from what he called "unprecedented threats" exemplified by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

The statement, read to reporters by White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, said that Bush was determined to protect his country from such threats from his first day in office, nearly eight months before the attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. "When I [Bush] came to office, I made a commitment to transform America's national-security strategy and defense abilities to meet the needs of the 21st century. Today, I am pleased to announce that 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."

The deployment is expected to begin with the mounting of 10 antimissile missiles at a military base in Alaska, which is situated across the Bering Strait from Russia's Far East. Ten more missiles will be added to the site over the next few years.

Washington has asked Britain for permission to use a radar complex in northern England as part of the antimissile system. And U.S. officials have asked Denmark, a member of NATO, whether it will be able to make improvements to a radar station at an U.S. military base in Greenland, also as part of the system.

Ever since Bush began speaking of his intention to test a missile-defense shield, he has met with skepticism from some quarters and outright opposition from others. Some say so complex a shield can never work as planned. Others, including some U.S. allies, say the shield would only spark a Cold War-style arms race.

Russia and China have said they oppose such a system because they feel they would be its targets. The Bush administration has responded repeatedly that the United States does not consider either country to be its enemy and therefore neither should feel threatened by a missile-defense program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin pressed his objection, saying the system would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or ABM, which was signed 30 years ago by the United States and Russia's predecessor, the Soviet Union.

But a year ago, Bush announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the terms of the treaty. The pact permits such a withdrawal, with six months' notice. Bush said it was time for Moscow and Washington to "move beyond" the ABM, which he said was predicated on the presumption of hostilities between the two countries.

Bush also said concerns about any new arms race should be put to rest by the Treaty of Moscow that he and Putin signed in May. That document calls for drastic reductions in the strategic arsenals of both countries.

Diplomatic obstacles aside, however, there was still the hurdle of technology. The U.S. Defense Department has conducted eight formal tests of the missile-interceptor technology, and three have been failures. During briefings yesterday at both the White House and the Pentagon, reporters asked whether now is the time to order the system's deployment, given the ratio of failure to success.

At the White House, Fleischer said early failures of the test system should not be given the same value as subsequent successes. "Obviously, there have been improvements in the design and the technology that allowed it to get to the point where this step can be taken today to begin to field the system," Fleischer said.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared the early failures of the national missile-defense system with similar failures of the American Polaris missile and by work done with satellites by the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, both of which are now noted for their successes. "If one goes back and looks, and things like Polaris and various others in the early days of the NRO, where there were failure after failure after failure, I think that anyone who thinks about it understands that when you're at the leading edge of technology, you expect that you are 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," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld was also quick to point out that the current state of the missile-defense system is embryonic at best and that it may be very different in its final form. "The way to think about the missile-defense program is that it will be an evolutionary program. It will evolve over a period of time," Rumsfeld said.

Fleischer was also asked about the timing of Bush's order to deploy the system. It comes soon after the communist government of North Korea announced that it has a program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. "The timing of the announcement is driven by the research programs that have been under way. The timing is really driven by the technology and the successful tests that have been under way that allowed the program to get to the point where it is today," Fleischer said.

Rumsfeld was asked the same question but in a different way. The defense secretary was asked if the missile-defense program would be a symbol of U.S. resolve to protect itself and its friends. He replied that the system will not be a symbol at all. But he added that it should send a strong message to North Korea or any other country that may be considering an attack on the United States.