AFP, 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 by the end of 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.”

U.S. officials hope to complete the network over the next several years.

“We are on track,” Vice Admiral Jonathan Greenert, commander of the 7th Fleet, said Wednesday aboard the USS Coronado, which is based just south of Tokyo.

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