White House delays missile-defense tests

Plans halted to avoid violating ABM treaty

a gesture to Russians

October 26, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON- In a goodwill gesture to Russia, the Bush administration announced yesterday that the United States was postponing several planned missile-defense tests.

The decision comes as the two nations negotiate a new strategic arms agreement and President Bush prepares to welcome Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to Washington and his Texas ranch next month.

In making the announcement, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the U.S. missile-defense program had reached the point where it could violate the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty between the United States and Russia. As a result, several planned tests had been halted to avoid breaking the 1972 pact.

The announcement was an indication that the United States would restrain its missile-defense program while the two countries try to negotiate a new strategic arms agreement.

But Rumsfeld also served notice that, despite the preoccupation with fighting terrorism, national missile defense (NMD) remains a primary concern.

He warned that the United States "cannot stay bound to the constraints" of the ABM Treaty. The warning seemed to be aimed both at the Russians and at State Department officials who question the urgency of ending the pact.

The Bush administration's drive to build a shield against missiles aimed at the United States is one of the key issues dividing the United States and Russia. It is also a source of friction with several important allies.

Bush has insisted that an anti-missile shield is needed to protect the United States against the day when rogue states or terrorist organizations get their hands on missiles capable of aiming chemical, biological or nuclear weapons at the United States.

Despite the drastic improvement in U.S.-Russian relations since Sept. 11, neither country has substantially altered its basic positions on the ABM Treaty. Bush has warned that the United States would pull out of the pact unilaterally rather than hobble development of missile defense.

After meeting Putin on Sunday in Shanghai, Bush said the increasing terrorist threat had made the need to replace the "outdated" treaty greater than ever, while Putin said the pact was important for international stability.

Pentagon officials have been warning for months that the time was approaching when tests needed to keep missile-defense development on track would violate the treaty.

Yesterday, Rumsfeld said that time had arrived.

"For some time now, we've advised [Russia] that the planned missile defense testing program that we have was going to bump up against the ABM Treaty," he told a news briefing. "This has now happened."

"This fact, this reality, it seems to me, provides an impetus for the discussions that President Bush has been having with President Putin, and that will continue here in Washington early next month," Rumsfeld said.

The planned tests involved use of advanced radar aboard Aegis cruiser warships to track missile tests. The ABM Treaty prohibits the use of mobile, sea-based or space-based radar to track ballistic missiles as part of a missile defense system.

In one test, originally set for this past Tuesday, Aegis radar was to track an interceptor missile fired from a U.S. test range in the central Pacific at a target missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Rumsfeld said.

A spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, said the test would take place between late November and mid-December. However, to avoid possibly violating the treaty, the Aegis radar would not be used to track the missile.

A second test involved using Aegis radar to track a satellite to be launched from Vandenberg on Nov. 14. Lehner said that launch would go ahead, but the Aegis radar would not be used.

Philip E. Coyle, a former assistant secretary of defense who is a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information, said, "I would think the Russians would take it positively, because the administration is willing to delay, at least for a while, a test that could be viewed by the Russians as violating the treaty.

"If it had gone ahead, it would be like poking them in the eye. The Russians could infer we weren't interested in negotiating at a time when Putin is to visit and we need Russian cooperation in the war in Afghanistan."

But he said it was "debatable" whether use of the Aegis radar in the test would have violated the ABM Treaty. He also said that the Pentagon faces "difficult challenges" in developing a sea-based missile defense system, and that the Aegis radars "don't have the power or range needed for NMD-class engagements."

Wade Boese, an analyst at the Arms Control Association in Washington, said the Pentagon has adopted a narrow view of what is allowed under the ABM treaty so as to point up the need to abandon the pact.

"The Pentagon is attempting to create a sense of urgency to get out of the treaty when there really isn't a need to," Boese said.

The Russians, in contrast, have adopted a much more flexible interpretation of the treaty in order to prolong its life.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged a debate within the administration on what the treaty permits. Speaking to reporters en route home from Shanghai this week, he said, "I have had discussions with some Russian colleagues of mine who suggest we can probably do more testing than we think we can under the treaty."

"We are looking at all of that," Powell said.

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