Washington, Dec. 17 (Reuters): US President George W. Bush has ordered the US military to begin deploying a national missile defence system with 10 interceptor rockets at a base in Alaska by 2004, administration officials said today.
The decision, which comes despite last week’s failure of an anti-missile test over the Pacific Ocean, will be announced by the White House and defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the officials told Reuters.
Defence officials, who asked not to be identified, confirmed a report in The Washington Times that Bush was going ahead with an ambitious schedule to field 10 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greeley, Alaska, by 2004 and an additional 10 interceptors by 2005 or 2006.
Another Bush administration official said the interceptors could also possibly be deployed at Vandenberg Air Force base in California. “It’s the first deployment of the missile defence system,” said the administration official, who asked not to be named. “We’re talking about deployment in 2004.”
Erecting such a shield is the Pentagon’s single most expensive development programme, likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars over coming decades.
Last Wednesday, the US suffered its third failure in eight test attempts to shoot down a long-range dummy warhead in space over the Pacific Ocean, and scientific critics of the multibillion-dollar programme have charged it is not yet mature enough to begin deployment.
But Bush and Rumsfeld have stressed the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology have sharply increased the need for such a defence against attack from “rogue states” such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea, especially in the wake of devastating attacks on America using hijacked airliners on September 11, 2001.
In a first step toward setting up a missile defence umbrella, the US in June withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that banned such systems.
The decision to begin deploying a national missile defence, which has been criticised by Russia and China, follows North Korea’s announcement this month that it will proceed with a controversial programme to develop nuclear weapons.
The Fort Greeley site would allow the US military to try and intercept any attack by long-range missiles being developed by the North.
The initial deployment would provide the US — which has been examining several ways to shoot down medium- and long-range missiles in flight — with a limited defence against such attack.
In London, British officials said they had received a written request from the US concerning its planned missile defence shield but had not yet responded.
Washington wants Britain to upgrade an early warning radar system at Fylingdales in northern England to enhance the programme to protect both the US and allies from attack.
Bush had wanted to put an Alaska-based “test bed” initially with five missile silos — and rudimentary operational capabilities against real attack — in place by October 2004.
The test bed was the first leg of a planned layered shield against missile attack. Other Pentagon projects involve overlapping systems that could be based at sea, in space and aboard laser-firing Boeing 747s.