WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is proposing to exempt the Pentagon's controversial missile defense system from operational testing legally required of every new weapons system in order to deploy it by 2004.
Buried in President Bush's 2004 budget, in dry, bureaucratic language, is a request to rewrite a law designed to prevent the production and fielding of weapons systems that don't work.
If the provision is enacted, it would be the first time a major weapons system was formally exempted from the testing requirement.
The proposal follows administration moves to bypass congressional reporting and oversight requirements in order to accelerate development of a national missile defense system.
One of Bush's goals when he took office was to carry out a missile defense system -- an idea first proposed by President Reagan -- and he almost immediately expanded the scope and the funding of the controversial program, which had encountered scientific and budgetary difficulties in recent years.
Last year, to help achieve that goal, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave the Missile Defense Agency unprecedented managerial autonomy and removed procurement procedures that were intended to ensure new weapons programs remain on track and within budget.
Administration officials believe the unusual measures are necessary because of a growing missile threat from rogue countries such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
But critics maintain the new independence and secrecy of what has become a vastly expanded missile defense program increases the chance that the Pentagon will spend tens of billions of dollars on an antimissile system that doesn't work.
Much is at stake. While the exemptions granted previously gave the missile defense program an unprecedented degree of autonomy from congressional oversight, they did not exclude it from testing.
Highlighting its technical weaknesses has been opponents' best hope for slowing the long-debated program.
In recent years, critics repeatedly have used Pentagon data from missile defense flight tests to challenge whether the experiments were as successful as claimed.
The latest proposal from the Pentagon would exempt the missile defense deployment from a law that requires the Defense Department to certify that appropriate operational testing has been completed before putting systems into production.
The Bush administration announced in December a goal of having a limited ground-based system operational in Alaska and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California by Oct. 1, 2004.
"The moves last year were just about reporting requirements. This is different," said Philip Coyle, director of operational testing and evaluation for the Pentagon from 1994 to 2001. "This is about obeying the law. Without these tests, we may never know whether this system works or not, and if they are done after this system is deployed, we won't know until we've spent $70 billion on a ground-based missile defense system."
The proposed waiver has raised concerns of Senate Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein of California, missile defense critic Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking member of his party on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
In a letter to Rumsfeld dated Wednesday, Feinstein wrote: "I believe that any deployed missile defense system must meet the same requirements and standards that we set for all other fully operational weapons systems. Indeed, given the potential cost of a failure of missile defense, I believe that, if anything, it should be required to meet more stringent test standards than normally required."
Feinstein's letter came one week after Rumsfeld had been grilled on the issue by Levin and Reed at an Armed Services Committee hearing.
"That law exists to prevent the production and fielding of a weapons system that doesn't work right," Levin said.
Rumsfeld replied that an exemption made sense in the case of missile defense.
"I happen to think that thinking we cannot deploy something ... until you have everything perfect, every 'i' dotted and every 't' crossed, it's probably not a good idea," he said. "In the case of missile defense, I think we need to get something out there, in the ground, at sea, and in a way that we can test it, we can look at it, we can develop it, we can evolve it, and ... learn from the experimentation with it."
Rumsfeld pointed out that two other weapon systems in recent years -- the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle and the Joint-STAR aircraft radar systems -- were deployed before they were tested operationally. But those systems did eventually go through operational testing, and neither went into full production until the testing was completed.
There is no guarantee the operational testing will ever take place if the law is changed to allow the system to be deployed.