Bush's missile defense system comes under fire from senators

Democrats question spending billions on an unproven project


WASHINGTON - As early as July, silos in Alaska could be filled with three-stage interceptors meant to destroy incoming ballistic missiles with the help of ground- and space-based sensors. It would be the first time the nation has had a system for destroying warheads aimed at U.S. soil since the Safeguard program in the 1970s.

But for now, the system's credibility is under attack. With the Bush administration requesting $10.2 billion for missile defense in the 2005 fiscal year alone, officials on the project faced intense questioning at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday.

Democrats on the panel expressed doubt about the wisdom of moving ahead with a project so vast and complicated that it would not receive full operational testing until those first interceptors were placed on alert and the sensors were scanning the skies for targets.

"Standing up there and saying this is a deployed system that will protect this country against a real threat stretches my imagination," said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

Deploying a national missile defense system would fulfill a campaign pledge George W. Bush made in 2000 when he was running for president. In December 2002, Bush called for a national missile defense system by the end of this year.

But weapons experts outside the Pentagon have argued that there is no imminent threat on the horizon that would justify the program's huge expenditures, up $1.2 billion from the previous year, and the deployment of a system whose real capabilities are unknown.

Election seen as factor

Although hooking up electronics for the interceptors could take weeks or months after the silos are filled, those critics say they see only one thing on the horizon that could be driving such a breakneck schedule: a presidential election season.

During the hearing, missile defense officials said there had been no political influence in the timing of their program or in a decision, made shortly after the president's call in 2002 for a defense system, to postpone tests that had been planned. But the officials did concede that national missile defense was a program like no other - partly because it is so big and costly that building a series of prototypes before fielding a final system would require an overwhelming financial investment.

"The idea of `fly before buy' is very difficult for this system," said Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency at the Pentagon, speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee. "This is `fly as we buy.'"

The hearing came on a day when the General Accounting Office released a report that also contained criticisms of aspects of the program. The office said that while the missile defense program had addressed many earlier criticisms, none of the components of the system has been tested in "its deployed configuration."

The degree to which members of the Senate committee accepted the "fly as we buy" approach was largely split along party lines.

The witnesses faced a stiff barrage from Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, who asked Kadish: "Is there any relationship between the fact that the president made a decision to deploy in December of 2002, and shortly thereafter you decided to cancel all these tests?"

After Kadish replied that there was not, Levin shot back, "That's a coincidence?" Finally the general said: "Senator, we didn't cancel those tests, we reoriented, and rescheduled them, put their objectives in different pots."

When contacted after the hearing, a White House spokesman, Sean McCormick, also discounted any political pressure on the system. "Decisions regarding deployment of these assets were based solely on the progress in developing missile defense technologies as well as on the threats we face," he said.

Tests based on models

In the hearing, Thomas P. Christie, director of the Pentagon's operational test and evaluation office, largely gave the missile defense agency positive grades, but pointed out that many of its tests are based on models and not on real flights.

"Model-based estimates will almost always contain uncertainties," Christie said.

But in an interview yesterday, Christie's predecessor at the Pentagon, Philip E. Coyle, expressed far more doubt about the reliability of the tests.

"Ever since the president made his decision, the priority of the program has been on deployment - not on understanding whether the system works," said Coyle, now a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information. "Most people don't appreciate how complicated this system is, nor how much all of the tests so far have been artificially scripted to be successful."

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