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.
First of all, there will be more tests, of more systems, than the Clinton administration had planned. The White House is seeking a 57 percent boost in missile-defense spending for 2002, to $8.3 billion. This money will help pay for 17 big experiments of defensive technology now scheduled for the next year or so, according to the Pentagon.
Of these tests, 10 will involve the ground-based interceptor technology that was the centerpiece of the Clinton missile-defense plan. Seven will involve upgraded Navy sea-launched missiles that might form part of a mobile, shipborne screen.
Second, individual tests will no longer be occasions for pauses and reflections.
Under Bill Clinton, major tests of interceptor technology became, in essence, tests of the viability of the missile-defense concept.
Last July, after the failure of an interceptor kill-vehicle to separate from its booster, Mr. Clinton postponed a decision about whether to proceed with plans for defense deployment. The test failure showed such a decision was premature, he said.
The Bush administration, by contrast, is downplaying the importance of Saturday's similar experiment, in which an interceptor launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific will race toward a Minuteman booster launched from California in an attempt to hit and destroy its warhead.
Test failures provided Clinton an "escape hatch" to delay work on something he didn't want to deploy anyway, says Baker Spring, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation here.
But Bush wants to prevent his plans from being derailed by any similar flops.
"A test in the development phase is just that - a test," says Spring. "[Saturday's scheduled interception] is almost certain to be, at some level, a mixed bag."
One recent uncertainty that has entered the Pentagon's calculations is the ascension of Democrats to power in the Senate.
Key Democratic senators - notably Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee - have said they will try to eliminate funds for any defense activity that might violate the ABM Treaty.
And much of the rest of the world remains skeptical of missile defenses, despite intense Bush administration wooing.
Vladimir Rushailo, head of Russian President Vladmir Putin's Security Council, said Thursday that defenses would lead to "a new powerful spiral of the arms race, particularly in space."
Even Britain has recently indicated its intention to withhold judgment on the advisability of antimissile system deployments.
Would the US go it alone?
"I still think the administration is committed to a consultative process," says Mr. Cirincione.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor