Published Sunday, March 14, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

GOP to push Clinton for missile defense

WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled Congress, in another test of strength against President Clinton, will attempt to force the administration to speed up deployment of a ``star wars''-type missile defense.

Clinton opposes bills that will come before the Senate on Monday and the House later in the week, but proponents say the legislation has a good chance of passage.

Critics assert that passage of the Senate bill, championed by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., will jeopardize the arms-control regime that helped avert nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War.

``The cornerstone of American strategic policy is now in the cross hairs of the opposition party,'' Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., told reporters recently. Biden is the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Russia views any step toward unilateral U.S. creation of a missile defense as a threat to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Biden warns that the Russian Duma, whose ratification of the START 2 treaty is already long overdue, might well put arms cuts into a deep freeze. That in turn could be the death knell of other arms-control treaties.

What has complicated the battle is that the administration itself changed policy early this year, by allocating $6.6 billion to develop a missile-defense system and $10.5 billion to pay for the deployment of 20 interceptors at a single site. Cochran contends that his legislation builds on the administration's policy shift, which itself is a response to actions by ``rogue'' states such as North Korea to acquire missile and nuclear weapons technology.

Cochran's text runs 41 words: ``It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized or deliberate).''

Cochran acknowledges that any such deployment will break the ABM treaty, which allows an ABM system around the national capital or to protect a national nuclear deterrent force, but not to protect the entire national territory.

``There is no such thing as a treaty-compliant NMD (national missile defense) system,'' said a top aide, who said Russia should be told that the two countries must renegotiate the treaty.

As to other arms-control treaties, the aide said opponents have the 34 votes needed to block the Comprehensive Test Ban. The administration advocates the CTB as the centerpiece in its drive to ensure that India and Pakistan do not test any more devices. But Cochran feels ``we're not here to satisfy India and Pakistan, but to ensure for us the requisite confidence in the safety and the reliability of the nuclear stockpile,'' his aide said.

Cochran's missile-defense bill has Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, as co-sponsor. He counts 54 backers, more than enough to pass -- something the administration does not yet concede -- and believes he can even block an expected Democratic filibuster.

A senior White House aide criticized Cochran's bill as making deployment almost automatic once it is technologically feasible. The White House says technological feasibility is not a sufficient criterion, and it wants to weigh whether there actually is a threat at the time, whether the weapons system will be ready, whether a missile defense is financially feasible and whether Russia will go along with changes to the ABM treaty.

Some observers question why a national missile defense is needed at all, and whether there are not cheaper, conventional ways to deal with a potential threat. At his last news conference, Clinton was asked how he could ``justify chipping away at the ABM treaty'' and pour ``billions and billions into a star-wars defense'' against the possibility that ``starving North Korea might fire a missile at us.''

Clinton replied: ``I never advocated . . . encouraged, sanctioned or blinked at the possibility that we could unilaterally abrogate the ABM treaty. I personally would be very opposed to that.''

But he argued that any number of ``rogue'' states other than North Korea might have the means in 10 to 20 years to deliver a nuclear missile strike against the United States. ``We owe it to ourselves and our allies to develop such a system if the technology is there,'' he said.

Biden disagrees. ``The administration strategy on this was wrong,'' he told reporters recently. ``I don't think there is a real `rogue state' threat. The moment you present a threat that is real, then we will push for amendments to the ABM treaty.'' He said he would prefer to threaten any country that acquires intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons capacity with their destruction. ``It's a lot cheaper and more feasible,'' he said.

The administration's biggest problem in fighting the Cochran bill is that at the behest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it has ostensibly changed policy, or at the least sown confusion about its real intentions.

The administration has scheduled its decision on deployment in just 14 months. The technological challenge, similar to that of shooting a bullet at a bullet, is unlikely to be met by that time, according to Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and officials say it is more realistic to think a system will be ready for deployment in 2003 or even 2005.

Even that is debatable. There have been 15 intercept tests since 1982, and 13 have failed. The two successes were made possible by special efforts to make the targets easier to locate.

``About the only thing we've been able to demonstrate over the last 15 years is that this program has an absolutely unique capacity for burning up large amounts of money, without anything ever coming out the other end,'' said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. ``There is no other program in American history which has managed to chew up $60 billion with absolutely nothing whatsoever to show for it.''