Making Missile Shield Inevitable ; Bush Team Insists US Will Go Forward - Even If Tomorrow's Rocket Test Reveals Technology Shortcomings

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The US has a big missile defense test scheduled for Saturday, and here's what the Bush administration has to say about it: The outcome, in one sense, doesn't really matter.

Not that the White House isn't keenly interested in the technology of its top security priority. But whether or not the experiment succeeds, the Bush team plans to push ahead with missile- defense development at an accelerated pace - fast enough, in fact, to perhaps deploy a rudimentary shield before the end of President Bush's current term.

As the Pentagon presses forward with the president's objective, it continues to play a game of geopolitical chicken with Russia and NATO allies who oppose any US action that would unilaterally violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The White House's point of view: Once they see we're serious, they'll come around.

"This is clearly still part of their plan, to instill a sense of inevitability about the process," says Joseph Cirincione, nonproliferation project director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In the latest evidence of the increasing intensity of the administration's approach toward defense, Pentagon officials announced this week that they intend to begin ground-clearing in August for a new missile-defense test site in Alaska.

The site, at Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, will be used as a base for five to 10 interceptor missiles. Together with an upgraded "Cobra Dome" radar at Alaska's Shemya Island, the Fort Greely installation will allow more realistic tests involving dummy warheads traveling in the direction of the continental United States, according to the Pentagon.

If development proceeds apace, Fort Greely might be declared the command-and-control center of an operational system, perhaps as early as 2004, near the end of Mr. Bush's current term in office.

But the ABM Treaty expressly forbids any antimissile system intended to protect an entire nation. (It does allow deployment of a small system to protect one city, or ICBM field. Moscow has long been ringed by missile interceptors, while the US once had a small number of interceptors based in Grand Forks, N.D.)

Thus construction at Fort Greely will inevitably progress toward a violation of the ABM pact, as currently constituted. When that boundary will be crossed is open to legal interpretation. But, under administration plans, crossed it will be.

"As the program develops and the various testing activities mature, one or more aspects will inevitably bump against treaty restrictions and limitations," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in congressional testimony on Thursday. "Such an event is likely to occur in months, rather than in years."

The Bush team's emphasis on defense-development speed can also be seen in its plans for and attitudes toward the Pentagon's testing program. …