The United States is to carry out the latest test in the development of its controversial missile defence system – attempting to shoot down a ballistic missile using an interceptor fired from a launch site almost 5,000 miles away.
The ambitious test – which will stretch from the Californian coast to the Marshall Islands – will be the fourth that defence scientists have carried out. Two of the previous tests had failed spectacularly.
While the test has been scheduled for many months, it comes at a sensitive time. The Bush administration has been widely criticised for the proposals which would breach the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, considered as one of the main pillars of post-war arms control. Britain has so far withheld judgement on the proposal which has split the Government.
The Pentagon yesterday confirmed that it intends to start building new test sites for the system. Work could begin as soon as next month.
The sites will be at Fort Greely, Alaska, and the plans for the multi-layered shield will involve ship-launched missiles and lasers mounted on airplanes. With a timetable of just four years, it means the Bush administration plans to have a basic system in place by 2005, regardless of international objections.
Deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Senate armed forces committee yesterday that the proposals were almost certain to create arguments about whether the 1972 treaty would be breached. He said: "One or more aspects with inevitably bump against treaty restrictions and limitations. Such an event is likely to occur in months, rather than in years."
In preparation of the controversy the proposals will create, the State Department has informed US diplomats around the world to expect criticism. A memo to diplomats said: "The rationale for Cold War arrangements no longer exists." The department is planning to issue them with "talking points" to help to deflect questions from foreign governments. One "misconception" they will be told to anticipate is that "states like North Korea and Iran would not dare attack the United States, knowing they would pay a terrible price in response".
But America's critics were quick to seize on yesterday's announcement. Vladimir Rushailo, head of Russia's security council, was reported to have told journalists: "Russia as well as many other countries believes that a unilateral withdrawal of the US from the ABM treaty would lead to the destruction of strategic stability, a new powerful spiral of the arms race."Reuse content