Monday, October 04, 2004

Questions Remain on U.S. Missile Defense


By JOHN J. LUMPKIN

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - 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 the Bush administration is vastly overselling an expensive, unproven defense system.

There has been an expectation that the administration will shortly declare that the missile defense system is operational and on alert. Military officials said they know of no specific plans for such an announcement.

Such an announcement would have political and strategic value for the administration.

To those who believe it will work, activating the system would fulfill a pledge by President Bush to have an operational missile defense system by the end of 2004. Such an announcement would also have greater value if it came before the Nov. 2 elections.

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, Penn., 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 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.''

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