Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday that he is still working out the rules dictating when and under whose authority to fire a new system to protect the United States from missile attack, and is awaiting a final assessment about the system's readiness to begin operations.
The remarks by Rumsfeld and other senior defense officials at a conference on missile defense indicated that the decision to put the novel and politically controversial system on alert is still weeks away.
The timing is being watched closely by proponents and critics of missile defense against the backdrop of the presidential campaign in which the speed and cost of deployment have become issues. The first interceptor missile was loaded into a silo in Alaska last month, and five more are due for installation by mid-October.
President Bush declared last week that the system will become operational later this year, reaffirming a goal he set two years ago. On Tuesday, he chided those who want to shrink and slow the program -- a thinly veiled attack on Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, who has called for reduced spending on missile defense.
But the program has been plagued by a series of testing delays -- most recently, the postponement this week of a critical flight test after the discovery of a faulty computer in the interceptor's booster.
Maj. Gen. John Holly, who is overseeing development, said here Wednesday that postponement of the test would not necessarily force a delay in start-up of the system.
"We've never set a prerequisite event prior to going on alert," the general told reporters. "We're continuing to accumulate information and data on a daily basis, and as we get closer to a place where we think it will be appropriate to brief the leadership, we will do that."
In a separate interview, Holly said he plans to submit a final readiness assessment by mid-September.
Administration officials have said the initial system will serve a dual purpose: It will provide a rudimentary defense against a potential North Korean missile attack, and it will enable the Pentagon to conduct more rigorous and diverse testing.
How defense officials plan to balance the demands of keeping the system on alert while also conducting tests has remained in question. Rumsfeld said Wednesday that if he had to choose between maintaining the alert status or running tests, he would opt for testing -- provided there was no missile crisis at the time.
"My attitude would be, take it off [alert], do the developmental activity, keep learning from this," Rumsfeld said at a news conference.
Earlier, addressing the gathering here of hundreds of military, government and contracting officials, Rumsfeld hailed the system's construction as "the triumph of hope and vision over pessimism and skepticism."