The Bush administration's fiscal 2002 budget includes plans for a missile defense test range in Alaska that could be converted into a rudimentary national missile system as early as 2004, officials said Wednesday.
Outlining details of the Pentagon's $328-billion spending plan, defense officials said they will propose building a set of five interceptor missiles at Ft. Greeley, near Fairbanks, Alaska.
The test range would be part of a rapidly expanding missile defense development effort on which the Pentagon is proposing to spend $8.3 billion to explore a variety of technologies. That would increase funding 57% above current levels.
Antimissile critics have accused Bush of trying to hurriedly deploy a defense system in hopes of forcing abrogation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. They contend this system would be no more than a "scarecrow" and would not deter an aggressor.
But Pentagon officials insist that, although they want to give the White House an emergency option, their intention is to spend the time and money necessary to develop a system from a variety of options.
They said their new plan is intended to find out which approaches work and to discard the ones that don't.
Nevertheless, the idea of a range that the White House could deploy in a crisis provides the first specific suggestion of how the administration might field a simple system to respond to the threats it sees coming from North Korea, Iran, Iraq and other countries.
And it may draw quick fire from critics--including those in Congress--who favor preserving the ABM treaty. That agreement, which sought to head off an arms race with the Soviet Union by barring national missile defense systems, is a cornerstone of arms-control agreements.
The administration recently has offered mixed signals on missile defense. Although officials have insisted that the ABM treaty needs replacement, they also have said that, in hopes of maintaining good relations with European allies and others, they may be able to do some preliminary testing on missile defense without abandoning the pact.
In fact, one critic--Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace--called the idea that a test facility was needed a "transparent ploy" to conceal the administration's interest in forcing an end to the treaty. He predicted that the proposal to build the site "will have a hard time getting through the Senate."
Missile defense officials, however, maintained that their latest plan is just one part of a broader effort to provide more frequent and realistic testing of antimissile systems. They noted that Philip E. Coyle, the Pentagon's chief weapon tester during the Clinton administration, had urged the Defense Department to move toward tests under conditions that would better duplicate a real crisis situation.
Defense officials said that if the missiles are built in Ft. Greeley, they could be transported to a range at Kodiak Island, Alaska, and tested against target missiles fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Firing interceptor missiles from the north would more closely duplicate the conditions that the United States would face if there were a real-life attack, they said.
It is not clear how the interceptor missiles would be guided if the test missiles were deployed.
During the Clinton administration, the Pentagon drew plans to build a sophisticated "X-band radar" in the Aleutian Islands to track incoming warheads and guide interceptors. But the Bush administration, in its new budget, provides no money for that project. The existing radar in Alaska is a 30-year-old system with considerably less capability.
The fiscal 2002 budget, for example, proposes to boost funding for the ground-based system developed in the Clinton years by $827 million, to bring spending to $3.2 billion, officials said. Much of that would be used to develop a fuller test program, they said.
The budget would supplement the $410 million spent on an airborne antimissile laser system by another $196 million.
Some members of Congress predicted the proposal for additional missile defense spending will come under tough scrutiny.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, predicted in an interview that there would be "a very thorough debate on all aspects of missile defense."
Briefing reporters, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that although the $328-billion budget marked the largest spending hike since the mid-1980s, far more would be needed.
Decrying the "coasting" that went on under Clinton, Rumsfeld said: "It took years to get into this circumstance and it will require years to get out of it."
He acknowledged that the budget would barely begin to transform the American military to meet the security challenges of the 21st century.
The budget compares with the $310.5 billion that President Bush proposed in February and $296 billion in the current Defense Department budget. The February proposal was amended to reflect results from a Rumsfeld review of military requirements.
Contrary to the expectations of many in the military and in Congress, the administration's 2002 budget devotes relatively little to military modernization beyond what the Clinton administration had planned.
Rumsfeld said that is because most of the extra $18.4 billion had to be earmarked for improving the living conditions of U.S. troops, which he said had deteriorated badly.
Rumsfeld believes the armed services have far too much infrastructure, and he is considering asking for another round of base closings in 2003. But aides say he is not convinced that the congressionally designed system for shutting bases is the best system, and he may propose a new arrangement.