- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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 that the Bush administration is overselling an expensive, unproven defense system.

There has been an expectation that the administration will declare shortly that the missile defense system is operational and on alert.

Military officials said they know of no specific plans for such an announcement, which would have political and strategic value for the administration.

Activating the system would fulfill a pledge by President Bush to have an operational missile defense system by the end of the year.

Such an announcement would have greater value if it came before the Nov. 2 elections.

Mr. 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, Pa., 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 Mr. 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.”

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, arose 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 were delayed, owing to recently discovered technical problems. The next test is set for late November or early December.

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