Defense Choices Left to New President

Wednesday, July 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The closer President Clinton gets to deciding whether to start building a nationwide shield against missiles, the clearer it seems that the most important choices will be left to his successor.

For much of this year, the Pentagon has been gearing up for a missile intercept test — scheduled for late Friday — that many believed would determine whether Clinton gave the green light to deploy an anti-missile system.

Now, however, it seems that Clinton's choice is more modest: whether to authorize the Pentagon to take the first step toward constructing a new radar for missile tracking, not whether to irreversibly commit the nation to missile defense.

Even if Clinton gives the go-ahead to build the radar, the work will not begin until after he leaves office.

``Whatever Clinton does, it will not rule in or rule out a national missile defense system,'' said Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who is a leading critic of missile defense.

Clinton said last week he had not made a final decision but expected to reach a position in the next several weeks. He will take into account the nature of the missile threat, the feasibility of missile defense technology, its cost and the implications for relations with other countries.

Vice President Al Gore, the presumed Democratic nominee, favors Clinton's approach of pursuing a limited defensive system that would protect only the 50 U.S. states. His expected GOP rival, George W. Bush, supports a broader, more ambitious system designed protect the United States as well as its allies.

Friday's test may not be the decisive event it once appeared to be. Still, the outcome is important because Congress has made it the law that a national missile defense be built as soon as technically feasible.

Can it be called feasible if the test fails? Even if it succeeds, does that make it feasible?

The Pentagon has conducted two previous intercept tests; one succeeded, one failed.

One of the most hotly debated aspects of the Pentagon's missile defense project is the feasibility issue. Critics say the flight tests are simply too unrealistic to render a judgment on whether the anti-missile system would be a reliable means of defense against an actual attack by North Korea or another nation.

These critics argue that the Pentagon's approach does not take account of potential ``countermeasures'' — decoys and other means an attacking nation could use to confuse a U.S. missile defense system.

``Any nation that can build an intercontinental ballistic missile can construct countermeasures that could easily defeat it,'' Richard Garwin, a defense expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent critique of the Clinton administration's approach, which he called a threat to arms control efforts.

That issue may be given added political punch when the CIA completes a secret evaluation, probably this month, that is expected to point out the likelihood of Russian and Chinese decoy technologies finding their way into the hands of North Korea, Iran or other countries that are developing long-range missiles.

Jacques Gansler, the Pentagon's technology chief, said recently there is no doubt any missile defense that is deployed will have to be improved over time as more sophisticated decoys are acquired by hostile nations.

Gansler said the decision facing Clinton is not to commit the country irreversibly to deploying a national missile defense, but whether to take the first steps this year to keep the Pentagon on track to being ready to deploy a defense by the end of 2005. That date is considered an important, though ambitious, goal because the CIA estimates that North Korea may have a missile capable of reaching U.S. soil by then.

So the question for Clinton is whether to stick to the 2005 target date. The Pentagon has said that if Clinton does not authorize it this summer or fall to prepare for the start of construction next year of a powerful new radar on Shemya Island in the Aleutians, then it cannot put the other pieces of missile defense together by 2005.

Gansler said that after Clinton makes his decision this year on whether to keep to the current schedule, there are several other key decisions, starting with a determination in 2001 whether to upgrade the capability of existing early warning radars and to begin the construction of the Shemya radar.

In 2003 a decision would be required for approving the full-scale manufacturing of missile interceptors.

``This is when you say, `I am going to build my weapons.''' Gansler said. ``This is the decision that actually gets made in 2003. That's the real decision, in terms of commitment to building weapons.''

But well before that 2003 decision, a U.S. president will have to decide yet another sticky question: whether to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which explicitly bans national missile defenses.

The Clinton administration has tried to get Russia to agree to amend the treaty to allow missile defenses. So far, the Russians have refused.

It remains unclear exactly when the United States would be in violation of the ABM treaty's ban on national missile defenses.

Would it be the moment a shovel is dug into the ground on Shemya? Or could the initial site preparation work there and at a missile interceptor site near Fairbanks, Alaska, be completed without violating the treaty?

This a political and legal issue that the White House is now struggling with.