WASHINGTON — A rudimentary missile defense system set to be installed in Alaska next year would be able to intercept and destroy North Korean nuclear warheads fired at American cities, a top Pentagon official testified Tuesday.
Undersecretary of Defense Edward "Pete" Aldridge said on Capitol Hill that the system, expected to be operational by the end of next year, would be "90%" effective in intercepting missiles fired from the Korean peninsula.
Aldridge's surprising claim -- which was immediately challenged by lawmakers -- could add to the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Relations between the two countries have been near crisis since Pyongyang admitted last year that it had restarted its nuclear program.
Aldridge, the Pentagon's top weapons acquisition official, said the capability would give President Bush "many more options" in confronting the Pyongyang regime. He did not elaborate.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Aldridge and other Pentagon officials backed away from a Defense Department proposal that would have exempted the missile system from ordinary weapons testing requirements.
The hearing marked the latest in a long series of heated exchanges on Capitol Hill over the missile defense system, a program first advocated by President Reagan in the 1980s.
For years, the program was criticized as too costly, unlikely to be effective and destined to alienate allies and other nations opposed to the effort.
But the program has been a top priority of the Bush administration and is poised to receive billions of dollars in additional funding.
Aldridge's claim about the system's capability was greeted with disbelief from lawmakers and missile defense experts, who noted that the system has had meager success in intercepting missiles even in highly controlled tests.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the claim was "exaggerated" and out of line with previous estimates that the Pentagon has provided in classified documents.
"You better go back and check the classified numbers," Levin said. "I think you'll want to correct the record after you read the classified numbers."
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) also was incredulous and pressed Aldridge on whether he would make the same claim to the president if faced with an attack by North Korea.
Confronted with "the possibility of the North Koreans hitting Los Angeles or San Francisco with a nuclear warhead, you are advising [the president] that we would have a 90% chance of taking that down?" Bayh asked. "If millions of lives depend on it, that's your answer?"
Aldridge replied, "Yes, sir."
Experts also questioned the claim. Philip E. Coyle, who was the chief Pentagon weapons inspector during the Clinton administration, noted that in tests over the Pacific in recent years, interceptors have struck U.S.-fired target missiles only five times in eight tries.
Those predawn tests, often visible from Southern California, are stacked to increase the likelihood of success. The target missiles are fitted with beacons that make them easier for the interceptors to find. And the interceptors are preprogrammed with data on the target missile's intended path.
"North Korea wouldn't send a missile with a beacon on it," Coyle said.
As part of the next phase in the development of the missile defense system, the Pentagon is planning to install 10 interceptors in silos at Ft. Greeley, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska.
The plan would appear to violate laws requiring new weapons systems to be subject to operational testing before they are deployed -- laws designed to guard against the Pentagon putting expensive weapons systems in place only to find that they don't work.
But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has argued that the missile defense system is such a high national security priority that its testing and deployment should be simultaneous.
The Pentagon recently appeared to be seeking to exempt the system from operational testing entirely when language was slipped into a spending bill that would have created a waiver for the program. Aldridge and others insisted that the matter was a misunderstanding and agreed to remove the language from the bill.
The system that is expected to be put in place next year is the first stage in an ambitious program that could eventually include interceptors and laser systems on aircraft and in space.
Rumsfeld and others have argued that North Korea's activities have increased the importance of moving swiftly to put a missile defense system in place.
In testimony last month, Rumsfeld said the North Koreans "very likely do have a two-stage [rocket] with a kick-motor capability which could reach the United States." Intelligence reports have said North Korea is developing a three-stage rocket that could reach the U.S. mainland.
By mid-decade, Iran also could have a missile capable of reaching the United States, said J.D. Crouch, assistant secretary of Defense for international security.