Clinton Punts Defense Decision

Friday, September 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Clinton has decided to leave to his successor the tough decision on beginning deployment of a national defense against ballistic missile attack, two senior administration officials said.

The president planned to announce his decision in a speech Friday at Georgetown University.

Work on the project, known as national missile defense, will go forward with additional testing of a ``kill vehicle'' to destroy warheads in flight and development of other key components, including a new booster rocket.

Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, has been as noncommittal as Clinton on whether there should be a national missile defense, saying he supported continued development work. Gore's Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has said he would push hard for a missile defense even more robust than the one currently on the drawing board.

In the face of strong objections from Russia and reservations among many Democrats in Congress, Clinton chose not to authorize the Pentagon to award contracts to begin building a new high-powered radar in the Aleutian Islands, the officials said, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

The radar is an essential element of the missile defense system because it would track incoming warheads.

Awarding the contracts this fall would have allowed the radar construction to begin next spring — a timetable that, on paper at least, would have kept the missile defense project on track to completion by 2005.

By putting off the initial step, Clinton in effect has pushed back the 2005 target date by at least one year.

Other details of Clinton's decision were not immediately available, including whether the 2005 target date has been reset for 2006 or 2007.

Clinton had said he would consider four main factors in deciding whether to proceed with the deployment process now: technical feasibility, cost, the urgency of a missile threat against the United States and the impact on arms control.

In previous public comments on missile defense, Clinton had never given a clear signal of what course he would take. In a May 31 news conference he seemed to indicate that missile defense was justified by a growing threat, not from Russia or China but from so-called ``rogue states'' like North Korea.

``Is there a threat which is new and different? The answer to that, it seems to me, is plainly, yes, there is, and there will be one.''

The proposed national missile defense, projected to cost about $60 billion, is designed to protect all 50 states against attack by a limited number of long-range ballistic missiles from North Korea or the Middle East. It is a scaled-down version of the global missile defense pursued during the Reagan administration that came to be known as Star Wars for its focus space-based lasers and other exotic weaponry.

In weighing his decision, Clinton faced conflicting pressures. Republicans in Congress have pushed hard for years for a national missile defense, and last year they gained passage of a law requiring the Pentagon to deploy such a system as soon as ``technologically feasible.'' The anti-missile testing program, however, has suffered numerous technological setbacks, including a failed flight test in July.

Clinton based his decision on recommendations from Defense Secretary William Cohen, who is perhaps the administration's strongest proponent of national missile defense, as well as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the president's national security adviser, Sandy Berger.

Cohen has not publicly discussed his recommendation, but he had indicated recently that he saw reason to consider whether going forward now might put undue pressure on Clinton's successor to affirm or reverse the decision.

Putting off the start of construction of the X-band radar on Shemya Island in the Aleutians gives the Clinton administration and its successor more time to negotiate a deal on the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. The 1972 treaty prohibits a national defense against ballistic missiles, and the administration has tried unsuccessfully to persuade Moscow to amend the treaty to allow a limited defensive system.