WASHINGTON – The United States plans to spend more than $25 billion by 2010 to defend against a strategic-missile threat that has yet to emerge.

The limited defense being rushed into operation in Alaska won’t provide a shield against the 3,000 nuclear warheads atop Russia’s 700 long-range missiles. It’s also unlikely the system ever will protect against the far more modest threat posed by China’s two dozen or so nuclear missiles.

Only two other countries – U.S. allies Britain and France – are known to have intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, capable of striking the United States. That means that for the foreseeable future, the costly new system being deployed to intercept ICBMs in midflight will guard exclusively against the possibility that North Korea, or Iran, will acquire a long-range threat.

How real is that threat? There is considerable debate. However, most experts agree that even if both countries eventually field an ICBM, they are a long way from developing a nuclear weapon sophisticated enough to ride atop it. Even so, missile-defense proponents insist the time to prepare is now.

Skeptics in Congress argue that Washington’s increasingly limited resources would be better spent protecting Americans from far more likely threats, such as terrorist attacks using bomb-laden trucks and ships. Only $125 million was spent by the federal government on grants to improve port security throughout the United States in 2004 – compared with $2.93 billion for the missile defense based in Alaska.

“The CIA has told us for years that the most likely attack on us will not be a missile attack but a terrorist attack using conventional means,” said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a longtime critic. “Spending a fortune on a less likely threat while underfunding defenses against the more likely threats is a huge mistake.”

Intelligence analysts are uncertain how close North Korea and Iran are to fielding an ICBM that can hit the United States.

The most recent National Intelligence Estimate in 2001 said the United States would “most likely” face long-range threats from both nations by 2015. The report also identified Iraq under Saddam Hussein as a future ICBM threat. He was said to possess “a small covert force of (short-range) Scud-variant missiles, launchers and conventional, chemical, and biological warheads.”

U.S. forces found no such weapons after invading Iraq, underscoring the unreliability of the estimates and, skeptics say, how the reports are politically manipulated.

Critics have roasted the Bush administration for going to war against Iraq – a country with neither long-range missiles nor weapons of mass destruction – while taking only sporadic diplomatic action against the other members of the “axis of evil” that pose greater threats. Both North Korea and Iran are developing long-range missiles under the guise of building boosters to send satellites into space.

In August 1998, North Korea’s attempt to launch a satellite atop a Taepo Dong 1 rocket failed when the third stage malfunctioned, dropping the payload into the ocean about 2,500 miles away.

Although North Korea has since adhered to a self-imposed testing moratorium, new intelligence analyses indicate work is proceeding on a longer-range Taepo Dong 2 that might be able to hit Alaska, Hawaii and the West Coast with a small warhead. An advanced version might be capable of striking anywhere in the United States.

Recent reports suggest North Korea also is working to acquire medium-range missiles that could be fired from submarines and ships – a threat that would fly beneath the system in Alaska.

Iranian progress on long-range missiles is almost as murky, although the country reportedly has help from Russia, China and North Korea. Last month, Iran announced that an upgraded version of its most powerful missile, the Shahab-3, has a range of about 1,250 miles – enough to reach Israel but far short of being able to hit the United States.

To guard against the possibility that an Iranian threat eventually emerges, U.S. officials are looking at basing missile interceptors at a site in southeast Europe similar to ones in Alaska and California.

Proponents say deployment of a U.S. missile-defense system may be enough to convince both countries to halt their missile programs.

“If we make it very clear that we have a defense deployed and we will embed every new technology as it evolves, these countries might soon figure out that it is not worth the effort,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

There is even more uncertainty about North Korean and Iranian attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Last month, the Iranian government announced it would resume enriching uranium, an important step toward building a bomb. The consensus among U.S. intelligence analysts is that North Korea already has at least one or two crude nuclear weapons and could be working on a half-dozen or so more.

Experts say that doesn’t mean either country is close to fielding a nuclear-tipped ICBM. Guidance systems needed to accurately steer long-range missiles to their targets require a level of sophistication far beyond anything North Korea or Iran has yet demonstrated. Development of the so-called re-entry vehicles that shroud the warheads as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere is almost as challenging. And large, crude nuclear devices must be made smaller and lighter to travel long distances on an ICBM.

“You can’t just build a primitive bomb and put it on a missile,” said Sidney Drell, a Stanford University physicist who has worked on nuclear and national-security issues for 40 years. “If you put a bomb on a tanker ship, it can be anything. But putting it on a missile and surviving the stresses of re-entry and the target sequence, all while keeping the weight within limits, is a major achievement.”

The new ground-based system offers no defense against established nuclear powers Russia and China.

The former Soviet arsenal can overwhelm the shield not only with numbers, but also with multiple warheads and elaborate countermeasures to fool defenses. China reportedly is in the midst of a long-term effort to increase its ICBM force to between 75 and 100 upgraded missiles. That would ensure Beijing’s ability to overcome any U.S. missile shield for the foreseeable future.

The U.S. defense against Russia and China will remain what it has been for more than 40 years: deterrence, or the threat of a devastating nuclear counterattack. Many experts are questioning why that same strategy won’t also work against North Korea and Iraq.

Missile-defense proponents say that approach is unwise because both countries are unstable, unpredictable and unlikely to be deterred by the threat of nuclear annihilation. However, recent history indicates neither is as militarily adventurous or provocative as the Soviet Union and China were during the Cold War.

“9-11 suggested that the very real, tangible threats don’t involve intercontinental ballistic missiles,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a missile-defense critic. “In fact, the intercontinental missile threat is probably more manageable than terrorism because if anyone launches a missile, we’ll know where it came from immediately and be right on top of them with devastating force. But that logic has not penetrated this because it is an ideological issue.”

Recent threat assessments by the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies are unanimous that the danger posed by terrorists using conventional weapons is vastly greater than the possibility of a nuclear ICBM strike by a rogue nation. Even so, missile-defense advocates argue it is critical to defend against both, whatever the cost.

“Some forms of attack may be more damaging than others even though they are less likely,” said Baker Spring, a national-security analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “So you would want to spend more money on them.”

(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/. On America Online, use keyword: OSO.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-04-04 0637EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.