WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's breakneck effort to field a rudimentary missile defense system by 2004 is moving so fast that the Pentagon may end up with unworkable hardware that needs to be redesigned at a steep cost, Congress' independent watchdog agency warned Wednesday.
In the first official, unclassified challenge to the administration's plans, the General Accounting Office issued a report saying that the Pentagon's use of new and little-tested antimissile technology puts the program "in danger of getting off track early and impairing the effort over the long term."
If parts of the system don't work, the report said, the Pentagon "will be faced either with fielding a less than credible system, or likely spending more money in an attempt to develop the desired capability within the time allowed."
The administration is hurrying to field by Oct. 1, 2004, a system that will be based in Ft. Greeley, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Los Angeles, and intended to shield the country from an intercontinental ballistic missile attack.
Administration officials argue that, facing a growing missile threat from North Korea and other countries, the Pentagon needs to deploy a basic system as soon as possible and then improve and expand it.
But the GAO argued that this approach, while preserving flexibility, "increases the potential that some components may not work as intended."
The GAO's criticism was seized on by congressional critics of the $9-billion weapons program, which is by far the largest proposed by the Pentagon for the coming fiscal years and is under review as conferees consider the $400-billion 2004 defense authorization bill.
Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that they had "grave concern" about the report's findings.
The report "clearly shows that the missile defense system the administration plans to field in 2004 will not be fully tested or proven to work under realistic conditions," Levin said.
Officials of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, which oversees the program, insisted in a statement that "we are highly confident that we will field an effective, reliable defense against long-range ballistic missiles aimed at any of our 50 states by the fall of 2004."
They noted that the GAO did give them credit for taking steps to "manage and reduce the risks of the program."
When Bush came into office, the Pentagon was following a program that called for 20 intercept flight tests as a means of gradually developing the system.
But the Pentagon has cut that in half.
The Pentagon says that deploying the rudimentary system will provide a better deterrent against North Korea, which may be capable of striking the continental United States with a sizable nuclear payload within a few years.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has argued that, even with limitations, the system is "better than nothing." He has compared the immature hardware to other weapons that were fielded while early in development and improved later, such as the Predator unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Pentagon will deploy 10 interceptor missiles in 2004 and another 10 in 2005. It will use Ft. Greeley and Vandenberg as part of a far-flung test that will enable the military to gradually improve the system.
The critics, however, say the accelerated schedule reflects President Bush's determination to make good on a 2000 campaign promise to deploy a system before the end of his term. Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, deployment of a missile defense system was Bush's top national security priority.
Critics say that while the system has intercepted dummy warheads in five of eight intercept flight tests so far, those tests took place in controlled conditions that did not prove that the system could work in the more stressing conditions of a missile attack.
The GAO report pointed out that the tests have used only surrogate booster rockets and a prototype of the antimissile "kill vehicle" that will be used to smash the enemy warhead in space. As a result, testing "to date has provided only limited data for determining whether the system will work as intended in 2004," the GAO said.
The critics note that the new system will lack many of its key parts when it is deployed in 2004.
While it will have a "bed" of 10 interceptor missiles at the Ft. Greeley site, it will lack two high-tech sensor systems -- an X-band radar and the Space Tracing and Surveillance System -- that will eventually be relied on to locate and track incoming missiles.
The booster rockets under development for the system also have problems that may not be solved by next fall, the GAO noted.
Relying on the new system "will be like having only one leg of the three-legged stool," said Philip Coyle, who was the Pentagon's chief weapons tester during the Clinton administration.