By the end of this year, the Pentagon is set to have in place a system designed to protect the United States from an attack by a long range missile that could be carrying a weapon of mass destruction. When President Bush took office three years ago, he quickly embarked on a controversial, multibillion dollar plan to put in place a missile shield capable of intercepting a nuclear warhead fired at the United States by a rogue nation. Largely unnoticed by the public and the media, a Pentagon agency has been moving ahead with work on an elaborate air, land and sea-based defense system capable of knocking out an enemy missile heading toward the United States. Despite questions over whether it will work, the Bush Administration is confident it will and considers the system essential to the nation's defense, given the increasing number of countries, such as Iran and North Korea, that are working to acquire nuclear weapons.
"Over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years or more, we can expect offensive missiles to become far more capable than they are now and so we need to ensure we have the defense against that type of missile," says Rick Lehner of the Missile Defense Agency, the Pentagon office charged with deploying the multi-layered missile shield. "The goal is to have an operational system against long range missiles by the end of this year."
Six years ago, North Korea stunned its Asian neighbors and the world when it test fired a medium range missile that flew over Japan. That same year, a congressionally mandated commission looked into America's vulnerability to a missile attack and determined North Korea in particular was well on its way to developing ballistic missiles that could threaten the United States. The head of the commission was Donald Rumsfeld, who was then a private citizen and is now defense secretary.
Missile defense has been one of the most controversial aspects of the Bush administration's foreign policy. In order to move ahead with deployment, the United States withdrew in 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union, a move opponents, including Democratic Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, believes could encourage America's enemies to build better missiles.
"It leads to destabilization," he argues. "The potential enemies will think that this is a threat to them and it will lead to an arms race."
There are also questions about whether a system untested in battle can, in fact, protect the nation from a missile attack. In tests conducted by the Pentagon in recent years, just five out of eight were judged fully successful. Of those that failed, some failed to separate from their booster rockets; others missed their targets.
"The system is very early in its development phase," says Physicist Lizabeth Gronlund with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is a research group that believes the system has not demonstrated an ability to handle an attack involving multiple warheads and decoys.
"In other words, I think that the system can be made to work against one missile if that missile takes no steps to make the job of the defense more difficult," she adds. "But that's a really unrealistic assumption."
Rick Lehner of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency says the entire project is still in the testing phase.
"It will continue to be very much a work in progress in terms of keeping up with the threat to make sure that the system that we are deploying is capable of being reliable and effective against all types of ballistic missiles," he notes.
Opponents also point out that the deadliest ever attack on the nation came not from missiles, but from terrorists already in the country.
"The most likely threat to the U.S. from terrorists is something of the sort that happened on 9/11," says Lizabeth Gronlund. "The worst threat you could think of from terrorists is that they would acquire a nuclear weapon or highly enriched uranium or plutonium that they need to make a nuclear weapon. There are hundreds of tons of this material primarily in Russia and the U.S. and it's not well guarded and that is where we should be putting our efforts."
Construction and testing on the missile shield are moving ahead. A total of 20 interceptor missiles are set to be deployed at Alaska's remote Fort Greely Army base and at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California by the end of next year.