The New York Times
January 20, 2000
Delay Sought in Decision on Missile Defense
WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 -- After an antimissile failure in a critical test on Tuesday night, supporters joined opponents today in asking the Clinton administration to postpone a decision on whether to field a complicated national missile defense system until after the November elections.
By ELIZABETH BECKER and ERIC SCHMITT
President Clinton is scheduled to make this decision in late summer. But the military has only one remaining test in which it now must hit a mock warhead with a missile to provide Mr. Clinton with the required evidence that it is feasible to build the system, which is meant to protect the country against a limited ballistic missile attack.
"We should put this decision off until next year," Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said today. "I think a new president and his team should be in place to make the call on this with a new Congress."
Mr. Hagel favors a national missile defense but believes the next administration should decide such a far-reaching foreign policy issue.
The Pentagon said today that the test was not a complete failure.
According to an initial assessment, the interceptor, or kill vehicle, that was shot from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific almost hit its target, a mock warhead launched on a modified Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force base in California, said a senior Pentagon official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Until the final six seconds of the nearly eight-minute flight, the interceptor was on target, the Pentagon official said. But then two infrared sensors, which sense temperature differences to guide the interceptor to its target, apparently failed. Most of the rest of the test sequence performed as planned, he said.
Even before Tuesday's setback, a growing number of members of Congress, from both parties, had joined with European allies in asking why a decision had to be made this summer on a weapons system that could undermine the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which is viewed by its advocates as a cornerstone of arms control.
Mr. Clinton's self-imposed deadline is now snarled in the presidential campaign here and in a debate overseas, where countries in Asia and Europe are afraid that the United States will pull out of the ABM treaty, signed with Moscow, which prohibits either country from deploying a missile system to defend its entire territory.
"We must avoid any questioning of the ABM treaty that could lead to a disruption of strategic equilibrium and a new nuclear arms race," President Jacques Chirac of France said in a recent speech in Paris.
State Department officials have expressed confidence to their European colleagues that Russia will agree to enough alterations to avoid such a showdown. But even such negotiations with Russia hinge on the March vote to select a president there.
A White House official said today that Mr. Clinton would stick to his timetable. In late spring, the military will conduct another missile test. In June the Pentagon will present to the president its determination on whether it is feasible to deploy the system. The president would make his decision in the summer, about the time that both political parties hold their national conventions.
"There is a timetable and the president will make a decision this summer," the administration official said. "We're not going to jump to conclusions. If the test succeeds in April or May, then we're back on course."
Mr. Clinton has said his decision will be based on the severity of the ballistic missile threat to national security, on the effectiveness of the technology, on the effect it will have on the ABM treaty and on the cost. Since 1983, the United States has spent $67.7 billion for missile defense research, and the current system is predicted to cost $12.5 billion.
Delaying the decision could carry political consequences for Vice President Al Gore, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Democratic strategists fear that a Republican nominee could use a delay to attack Mr. Gore as unwilling to support a strong defense.
"The president's deployment decision will have more to do with defending Al Gore against George Bush than the American people against North Korea," said John Pike, of the Federation of American Scientists. "They will need a lot more tests to decide whether this will work."
Senator Gordon H. Smith, a Republican from Oregon who is also on the Foreign Relations Committee, said today that the failed test demonstrated that the United States should be careful negotiating any lasting changes in the ABM treaty.
"We should defer to another administration, Republican or Democrat," said Senator Smith, a missile system proponent who only wants to slow the deployment decision. "We ought not to be giving up more than we should."
But senior Republican leaders urged a quick decision to deploy.
"We are going to go forward with a national missile defense," the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, told reporters today.
"It's the right thing to do.
It's irresponsible not to do it."
Supporters of a speedy deployment of a national missile defense have urged the White House to wait until Tuesday night's test can be fully evaluated.
"I hope the president will wait until the facts are in before judging this test," said Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, a strong supporter of missile defenses. "I expect that we will learn that this was not an unsuccessful test, even though the interceptor did not hit the target.
Let the program be fully tested, and then judge the merits."
Scientists also said that a decision should be postponed so that a schedule could be geared to scientific rather than political milestones.
"The problem is that the milestones for these programs are being driven by politics and not by science," said Stephen Schwartz, publisher of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "The scientists are working very hard to do very difficult things in an extreme schedule and people are expecting them to work miracles."