"When I came to office, I made a commitment to transform America's national security strategy and defense capabilities to meet the threats of the 21st century," President Bush said Tuesday in a prepared statement. "Today I am pleased to announce we will take another important step in countering these threats by beginning to field missile defense capabilities to protect the United States as well as our friends and allies."
The president's plan calls for the deployment of up to 20 ground-based interceptors capable at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., as well as 20 sea based interceptors on Navy vessels, advanced versions of the Patriot portable anti-missile system and enhanced radar, by 2004 or 2005.
The system would be expected to expand for years, eventually providing defense against all ranges of ballistic missiles, at every stage of their flight and from any point on the globe.
Eventually it would protect not just the 50 states, but American troops and allies around the world, after tens of billions of dollars of research and testing under four presidents, reports CBS News Correspondent David Martin.
Asked at a Pentagon press conference how he could be confident in fielding a system considering some recent failures in testing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "most things don't just arrive fully developed."
"The way to think about the missile defense program is that … it will evolve over time," he said.
The president's plan is in line his own campaign promises and existing U.S. policy, and is no surprise to either Democrats or foreign capitals. Democrats are unlikely to try to block the move as they did President Reagan's Star Wars initiative, and the Russians have already accepted U.S. intent to amend the 1972 ABM treaty, which prohibited anti-missile shields.
Still, some Democrats say the technology behind the plan is unproven and they doubt it will offer much protection in the next few years.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Bush's plan "violates common sense by determining to deploy systems before they have been tested and shown to work."
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a two-page statement Wednesday expressing regret over Mr. Bush's decision to push ahead with a missile defense system. The statement expressed concern the focus on the missile system will divert resources from "today's real challenges and threats … international terrorism."
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said the plan needs to be seen as a first step.
"It's giving us a capability that we've never had and do not have today. If a missile were launched today there would be nothing we could do to take it down — nothing," said Weldon.
Mr. Bush said his project, which has been in development for years and the subject of intense international debate, is an essential step toward providing defenses against 21st century threats. They include the possibility of terrorist groups launching ballistic missiles armed with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.
But Democrats said that capability won't exist for years.
Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, a leading Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he doesn't believe his party will offer much of a challenge to Mr. Bush.
But Spratt said key elements of the missile defense system are behind schedule or haven't been successfully tested. "We shouldn't fool ourselves about the capacity of the system," he said.
David Sirota, spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, questioned the president's priorities.
"If George Bush thinks we are so flush with cash that we can afford billions to deploy a technology that might not even work, then why has he repeatedly rejected funding for basic security like border patrol, Coast Guard and immigration services that we know is desperately needed to prevent another September 11th?" he said.
The administration put no final price tag on the project, but will ask Congress to allocate $1.5 billion over the next two fiscal years on top of the roughly $8 billion a year the Pentagon already has budgeted for missile defense. The extra money would pay for additional short-, medium- and long-range missile interceptors.
In a test last week, the booster rocket that carries the "kill vehicle" into the upper atmosphere failed to release the kill vehicle on time, and the system failed to intercept a dummy missile. Of the eight tests of the system so far, five have succeeded. Each test costs about $100 million.
Among critics in the United States, the system's technological viability is not the only concern. They also question its strategic implications and cost.
Some have warned that it could spur an arms race involving China, India and Pakistan, as Beijing moves to bolster its missile fleet and regional rivalries force the Asian subcontinent to follow.
Others wonder whether a missile shield isn't obsolete in a world where dirty bombs and hijacked airliners might be the weapons of choice of America's most determined enemies.