Friday, January 12, 2001

Rumsfeld makes his case
for building missile defense

By Jonathan S. Landay
Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - The United States needs a national missile defense and could deploy the system even before all the technical bugs are worked out, Defense Secretary-designate Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday.

"Effective missile defense - not only homeland defense but also the ability to defend U.S. allies abroad and our friends - must be achieved in the most cost-effective manner that technology offers," Rumsfeld testified during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At the end of the six-hour hearing, panel members from both parties assured Rumsfeld he would be swiftly confirmed after President-elect George W. Bush's inauguration on Jan. 20.

Rumsfeld pledged to push for a major increase in the Pentagon's $310 billion budget, improve military readiness, transform the armed forces to meet 21st century threats, bolster intelligence gathering and implement wide-ranging acquisition and budgetary reforms.

Rumsfeld, 68, was secretary of defense for 14 months between 1975 and 1977 under former President Gerald Ford.

Despite major differences over issues such as missile defense, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and nuclear testing, committee Democrats did not get tough with Rumsfeld.

Yet there were hints during the session of future frictions.

Senators, for example, reminded Rumsfeld that China and Russia strenuously oppose U.S. missile defense plans, and NATO partners also have serious reservations about it. Rumsfeld promised he would consult more closely with the European allies on missile defense.

Noting that two of three tests of a prototype national missile defense interceptor had failed to hit warheads in outer space, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., asked Rumsfeld if he would require the system to pass a field test before declaring it ready.

"I would really like to avoid setting hurdles on this subject," replied Rumsfeld. But he went on to imply that a system that still had technological problems could be deployed. He pointed out that the United States began using its first spy satellites, code-named Corona, before they were fully proved.

Corona "failed something like 11, 12, or 13 times during the Eisenhower administration and the Kennedy administration," Rumsfeld said. "And they stuck with it, and it worked, and it ended up saving billions of dollars because of the better knowledge we achieved."

Just deploying a national missile defense system, Rumsfeld continued, was sufficient to force U.S. adversaries to think twice about attacking the United States.

Rumsfeld declined to discuss the kind of national and theater missile defense systems that the Bush administration would seek. He said that would be determined in a review.

During the campaign, Bush spoke of developing globe-spanning land-, sea- and space-based missile defenses capable of defending the United States, its allies and its troops in the field from attacks by missiles with nuclear, biological and chemical warheads.

Many experts, including prominent physicists, doubt that effective missile defenses are possible. They doubt technology would ever allow interceptors to distinguish between real warheads and decoys.

Rumsfeld stuck to the national security platform Bush promoted in the campaign.

On some issues, such as U.S. military assistance to Colombia's anti-drug efforts, Rumsfeld declined to offer his position, saying he had yet to be briefed or that he would await the results of a defense strategy review.

Among the topics on which he would not be pinned down was the exact size of the Pentagon spending increase he would seek. But he held out the possibility that the defense strategy review could target big-ticket weapons programs for elimination.

During the campaign, Bush promised to raise military spending by at least $45 billion over a decade. But the sum is insufficient to cover a shortfall - estimated at $50 billion to $100 billion per year - between what the Pentagon needs to buy new aircraft, guns and ships now on order and the funds it will actually have available.

Nor does Bush's plan include funds for the larger missile defense system he has proposed. President Clinton was pursuing a more limited $60 billion system, but deferred a decision on going ahead with deployment to his successor.

Many experts, including some who advised Bush on defense during the campaign, say the funding shortfall will force the incoming administration to cut or scale back major weapons programs.