The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - While President Bush's national security team ponders missile defense options, the Pentagon office in charge of the project may have a first test of a critical new component as early as March, officials said yesterday.
The Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization also is planning another attempt to shoot down a mock nuclear missile in space, probably in May or June, using the same technologies that produced a spectacular failure in July, the officials said. Two of the last three attempted missile intercepts failed.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has met three times with Ronald Kadish, the Air Force general who runs the missile defense office. Rumsfeld gave Kadish no indication he should change direction. "His guidance to Gen. Kadish is, 'press on,'" Quigley said.
Aside from the technical issues yet to be resolved, Russian and Chinese officials offered reminders yesterday that whatever the design of a U.S. national missile defense, it will be controversial.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi warned that American missile defense "will have a far-reaching and extensive negative impact on the global and regional strategic balance and stability."
In Moscow, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev asserted that a U.S. missile defense could easily be defeated by technologies the former Soviet Union developed in the 1980s in response to President Reagan's Star Wars plan that was a more ambitious attempt to defend against all-out missile attacks.
"We had three mighty programs to asymmetrically counteract U.S. national missile defenses during Reagan's 'Star Wars,'" Sergeyev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. He gave no details. Although the programs were halted, "We still have them and can take them up again," he said.
At a European security conference in Germany Saturday, Rumsfeld said President Bush intends to deploy a national missile defense. But first Rumsfeld is reviewing the status of the project the Bush administration inherited from the Clinton administration and is considering how to fulfill Bush's pledge to provide a missile shield that would cover not only the United States but also its allies.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said yesterday he believes the administration must clarify what kind of missile defense it wants, so Congress can assess it. "We are talking about trillions of dollars difference," depending on how expansive it is, he said.
Among the administration's options are to supplement a ground-based missile defense system - as is currently in testing - with a sea-based system which could provide wider coverage but will take longer to deploy. The ground-based system, as foreseen by the Clinton administration, would protect all 50 U.S. states against a small-scale attack by missiles with relatively unsophisticated decoys.
Bush has indicated he wants a more robust system, although that raises technical, political and financial questions. Rumsfeld hinted that decisions on how to proceed are unlikely for at least several weeks.
In the meantime, Kadish's office is preparing for the first flight test of a prototype for the rocket boosters that would be based in Alaska and would carry aloft the warhead-busting "kill vehicle," which is designed to find its missile target in space and destroy the target by slamming into it at high speed.
Together, the rocket booster and the kill vehicle form the "weapon" in a missile defense system.
Up to now the Pentagon has been using an older booster as a stand-in for the one being developed by Alliant Techsystems and Orbus. In July's intercept attempt, the booster failed to send the required electronic signal to make the kill vehicle separate from the booster. So the kill vehicle's ability to perform the crucial final tasks - finding its target and maneuvering into its path - could not be tested.
In September, Kadish told Congress that delays in producing the new booster "threaten to be that major problem that could significantly impede" progress toward a deployable missile defense.
In a test tentatively set for March or April, the prototype booster is to be launched westward from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., into the Pacific Ocean. It will not attempt to intercept a missile.
Another such test is planned for summer, and by early 2002 the Pentagon hopes to launch the new booster from the Army's Kwajalein missile range in the central Pacific eastward toward the U.S. West Coast - a trajectory that would give project engineers a better assessment of the effects of the Earth's rotation on the flights of both the interceptor missile and the missile used as the target.