At a newly constructed launch site in central Alaska, a large crane crawls from silo to silo, gently lowering missiles into their holes. The rockets are designed to soar into space and intercept warheads headed toward the United States.
With five installed so far and one more due by mid October, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is preparing to activate the site sometime this autumn. But what the Bush administration had hoped would be a triumphant achievement is clouded by doubts, even within the Pentagon, about whether a system that is on its way to costing more than $100-billion will work. Several key components are years behind schedule. Flight tests have yet to advance beyond highly scripted events. The lack of realistic test data has caused the Pentagon's chief weapons evaluator to estimate its likely effectiveness as low as 20 percent.
Senior officials at the Pentagon and the White House insist the system will provide protection, although they use terms such as "rudimentary" and "limited" to describe its initial capabilities.
"Did we have perfection with our first airplane, our first rifle, our first ship?" Rumsfeld said last month. "I mean, they'd still be testing at Kitty Hawk, for God's sake, if you wanted perfection."