WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Tuesday ordered the Pentagon to have ready for use within two years a bare-bones system for defending American territory, troops and allies against attack by ballistic missiles.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned against viewing the plan as a foolproof means of defense. He described the planned initial capability as "better than nothing" and said it would evolve in ways that incorporate technological advances, lessons learned from testing and help from allies.
If it goes as planned, the system would expand over a decade and beyond, eventually providing defense against all ranges of ballistic missiles, at every stage of their flight and from any point on the globe.
The Bush administration put no final price tag on the project, but will ask Congress to allocate $1.5 billion in 2004-05. That is on top of the roughly $8 billion a year the Pentagon already has budgeted for missile defense. The extra money would pay for additional short-, medium- and long-range missile interceptors.
Critics question whether Bush's goal is feasible and whether the threat of attack is sufficient to justify the expense.
David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists said the president's plan was unproven and illusory. He noted that a missile defense system built in the 1970s was deemed inefficient and was shut down in a matter of weeks.
"No one knows if the government will admit its mistake so quickly this time," Wright said.
The most ambitious version of missile defense was President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative of 1983. He envisioned an impenetrable shield against the Soviet Union's arsenal of thousands of missiles. That effort, called "Star Wars" by its critics, foundered until it was killed by the Clinton administration.
Bush said his project, which has been in development for years and the subject of intense international debate, is an essential step toward providing defenses against 21st century threats. They include the possibility of terrorist groups launching ballistic missiles armed with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, the likely next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised Bush's decision and said Congress would likely approve the additional $1.5 billion.
The Bush plan was outlined at a Pentagon news conference by Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency. Among the key elements:
Six ground-based interceptors would be based at Fort Greely, Alaska by the end of 2004, with 10 more added by the end of 2005. Four interceptors would be at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., for a total of 20 by the end of 2005.
Twenty Standard Missile-3 interceptors would be aboard three Navy ships. This sea-based system was outlawed under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Bush gained the flexibility of testing it when the United States withdrew from the treaty last summer.