Bush plans missile shield

President expected to speed drive for multilayered system

ABM treaty in question

Unilateral reduction of U.S. nuclear arms possible, officials say

May 01, 2001|By Jay Hancock and Tom Bowman | Jay Hancock and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush is accelerating plans to deploy an antimissile shield and is considering cutting thousands of offensive nuclear warheads from the American arsenal, possibly without gaining reciprocal reductions from Russia, according to U.S. officials and foreign diplomats.

In what the White House is billing as a major speech today, the president is expected to signal backing away from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Antiballistic Missile Treaty that has supported the strategic balance of power for almost three decades and to emphasize the need for a new approach to nuclear threats.

"He's going to talk about how the world has changed, about the need for a new comprehensive strategy to deal with the new kinds of threats we are facing," a White House official said.

Key aspects of the new policy still are being debated, including how deeply to cut offensive capability, how and where to build the most quickly available defensive system and how closely to work with Russia in coordinating the changes.

"There are some important aspects of this that they haven't settled on," said a Western diplomat based in Washington. "They don't seem to have much scope to amend the ABM treaty in ways that would allow them to go ahead, but they do seem to want a framework with Russia. The question is, what kind of framework do they want and how do you go ahead with it?"

Even so, Bush's "broad direction" is increasingly clear, another diplomat said.

Perhaps the best public glimpse so far of that direction came last week in a speech given by Lucas Fischer, a State Department official, to the Danish parliament.

"We will deploy defenses as soon as possible," Fischer said. "Therefore, we believe that the ABM treaty will have to be replaced, eliminated or changed in a fundamental way."

Pentagon and foreign officials who have been briefed by the administration said Bush's team is eager to roll out a multilayered plan that would start with a sea- and land-based antimissile system in the next several years. That system would be supplemented later with other weaponry, including space-based interceptors.

The changes stem from Bush's contention that new missile threats from terrorists and unfriendly states such as Iraq and North Korea require the United States and its allies to erect some sort of protective barrier.

The proposal is opposed by some defense analysts who argue that it would prompt a new arms race as potential adversaries tried to overcome one another's shields with ever greater stockpiles of offensive weapons.

Bush also has suggested that it makes sense to reduce the American force of more than 7,000 offensive warheads at a time when Russia, the United States' only major potential nuclear adversary, has fallen into weakness and poverty.

Defense analysts have suggested that the administration eventually will propose shrinking the U.S. nuclear stockpile to 2,500 warheads or less. In 1997, President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to negotiate toward a 2,500 limit but never reached an agreement.

People familiar with the administration's proposals say they are likely to include short- and long-term missile-defense plans.

The short-term plan would include perhaps two Navy warships equipped with missiles that could intercept enemy warheads, coupled with a land-based system with 20 to 40 interceptor missiles.

That land-based proposal would be smaller than the 100 interceptor missiles that the Clinton administration proposed basing in Alaska - but put off last summer after two of three tests failed. Clinton said more testing was necessary.

As a result of Clinton's decision, Pentagon officials said the first missiles could not be deployed in Alaska until 2006 at the earliest."[The Bush administration] would like to do it faster," said a congressional staffer who has been briefed by administration officials.

Moreover, the administration would like to outfit Navy ships with interceptor missiles within the next several years as an "emergency system" that could be stationed in the Sea of Japan to protect against a North Korean missile launched toward U.S. territory, a Defense Department source said.

Henry Cooper, who headed the Pentagon's missile defense office in the first Bush administration, said it would take three to four years to outfit Aegis warships with new missiles capable of striking enemy ICBMs shortly after takeoff, in their "boost phase."

"If the purpose is to build something quickly," said Cooper, "the Navy offers the nearest term option."

The Navy is working on a "theater" missile defense system designed to protect allies and troops from enemy missiles in a small area. The first test of the Navy system is scheduled for next spring, and it could be deployed in 2007.

For the long-term, the Bush administration is looking at accelerating a space-based laser to shoot down enemy missiles, the sources said.

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