The Bush administration threw down the gauntlet over defence yesterday, making it clear that the US will fast-track its missile shield plans regardless of international objections that Washington is violating the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty.
In a series of defiant briefings to Congress and the media in which they compared the missile plan to the race to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, Pentagon officials said they will begin clearing the ground to build a missile defence test site in Alaska next month, a move which Russia and many European governments regard as a breach of the 1972 treaty.
This will be the first step in an accelerated American missile defence programme in which the Bush administration aims to have ground, air and sea-based missiles and lasers operational in a US missile shield by 2005.
This is a much faster timetable than previously acknowledged by the US or by the British government, which continues to claim that no firm decisions have yet been taken in Washington.
A senior Russian official said the moves showed that the Bush administration "have already made their decision". Igor Sergeyev, security adviser to President Vladimir Putin, denounced the recent round of US international consultations on the project as a "smokescreen."
Last month the White House unveiled plans to add an extra $600m to the missile defence research budget for the current financial year, bringing the total to $7.5bn. A further $2.2bn will be added to the 2002 budget, boosting missile defence spending still further
Mr Bush's Republican administration expects that it will "bump up" against the constraints of the ABM treaty "in months", the deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Democrat-controlled Senate armed services committee yesterday.
But Washington was determined to "achieve release" from the treaty, he added.
"For the past decade, our government has not taken seriously the challenge of developing defences against missiles," Mr Wolfowitz said. "We have not adequately funded it, we have not believed in it, and we have given the ABM treaty priority over it. That is not how America behaves when we are serious about a problem. It is not how we put a man on the moon in just 10 years."
On Saturday, the Pentagon will carry out its latest missile interceptor test over the Pacific ocean by launching a dummy missile from a test site in the Marshall islands. An interceptor fired from Vandenberg air force base in California will attempt to bring it down. Last year a similar test was an embarrassing failure.
Next month, the US will begin clearing away trees at Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, Alaska, for the new test site.
Washington insists this clearing and digging does not breach the ABM treaty, which allows the US and Russia to build just one land-based anti-missile system. The US already has such a system, protecting its missile arsenal at Grand Forks, North Dakota.
However, even Washington acknowledges that once it begins erecting buildings and creating missile silos next summer, the US will be in breach of the treaty.
"We hope and expect to have reached an understanding with Russia by the time our development programme bumps up against the constraints of the ABM treaty," Mr Wolfowitz said yesterday. "We would prefer a cooperative outcome... we must achieve release from the constraints of the ABM treaty."
Moscow immediately condemned yesterday's moves in Washington.
"Russia, like many other countries, takes the view that the US's unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty would lead to the destruction of strategic stability, a new powerful spiral of the arms race, particularly in space, and the development of means for overcoming the national missile defence system," Vladimir Rushailo, the head of Mr Putin's security council, said.
"The international community should consolidate its efforts to prevent such developments."
An unnamed Russian foreign ministry official told the Interfax news agency yesterday: "We will view the first cubic metre of concrete laid under the launching pad for interceptor missiles in Alaska as the United States' formal withdrawal from the ABM treaty."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001