updated 9/24/2004 1:44:17 PM ET 2004-09-24T17:44:17

ABOARD THE USS CORONADO — In the first step toward erecting a multibillion-dollar shield to protect the United States from foreign missiles, the U.S. Navy will begin deploying state-of-the-art destroyers to patrol the waters off North Korea as early as next week.

The mission, to be conducted in the Sea of Japan by ships assigned to the Navy’s 7th fleet, will help lay the foundation for a system to detect and intercept ballistic missiles launched by “rogue nations.”

Washington hopes to complete the network over the next several years.

“We are on track,” Vice Admiral Jonathan Greenert, commander of the 7th Fleet, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday aboard the USS Coronado, which is based just south of Tokyo. “We will be ready to conduct the mission when assigned.”

‘Highest priority’
The deployment will be the first in a controversial program that is high on President Bush’s defense agenda. Bush cleared the way to build the system two years ago by withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which banned ship-based missile defenses.

He said protecting America from ballistic missiles was “my highest priority as commander in chief, and the highest priority of my administration.”

The project — likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet, only at three times the speed — is exceedingly complex, prompting many critics to argue that it will never be reliable or effective. It is also expensive, with an estimated price tag of $51 billion over the next five years.

Even so, the missile threat is hard to deny.

More than 30 nations have ballistic missiles, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency. Though exact times depend on where the launch occurs, missiles could in less than 30 minutes reach virtually anywhere within the United States.

Life on the knife's edgeGreenert refused to give a specific date for the first deployment from the 7th Fleet, but said a deadline of Oct. 1 — next Friday — announced by Navy Secretary Gordon England in March has not changed.

Greenert, who assumed command of the Navy’s largest fleet last month, also refused to name a target for the Sea of Japan patrols.

“I can’t specify adversaries, but you’re looking at rogue nations,” he said in his first interview since taking the fleet command. “Take it from there.”

The country best fitting that description in East Asia is communist wildcard North Korea, which has missiles capable of reaching the American west coast and is believed to either already possess or be well on its way toward successfully developing nuclear weapons.

The North shocked Japan in 1998 by launching a multistage “Taepodong” ballistic missile over Japan’s main island. Tokyo responded by beefing up its own surveillance capabilities and launching its first spy satellites in March 2003.

Deep distrust
Though Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won a promise in 2002 from the North for a moratorium on further long-range tests, distrust runs deep.

This week, Japanese naval ships were dispatched to the waters off North Korea amid reports that Pyongyang was preparing to test launch a “Nodong” missile, which can reach much of Japan — and the more than 50,000 U.S. troops stationed there — in just minutes.

North Korea is believed to have at least 100 of the missiles.

Because of the North Korean threat, Japan has become the first country to agree to work with Washington on the missile defense project. It is upgrading its own destroyers and acquiring better U.S.-made interceptors — the ship-launched Standard Missile-3 and the ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3.

“The Japanese are very interested in developing a missile defense,” Greenert said.

He said the role of the 7th Fleet destroyers will be to provide long-range search and tracking of missile activity. Eventually, data gleaned by the ships would be transmitted to Ft. Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where, if necessary, interceptor missiles would be launched.

But for now, tracking and monitoring are as far as the mission can go. The interceptors won’t be fully deployed at the American bases until next year.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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