WASHINGTON — President-elect George W. Bush's plans for a "robust" national missile defense (NMD) are likely to dwarf current models and may grow into a space-based system, according to experts familiar with the views of the incoming administration.
Although it is still early in the game, and Mr. Bush's national-security team has yet to publicly outline how it would build a comprehensive missile shield, several "add ons" are being discussed in GOP circles - ranging from simple expansions to radical changes in design that include sea- and space-based interceptors.
If followed through, any of the Republican plans would go beyond the limited system being developed by the Clinton administration, which initially calls for one interceptor site in Alaska and 100 missiles to shoot down enemy warheads.
Even the current proposal has been controversial - because of technological challenges and objections raised by Russia and China, which maintain it would violate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
The Bush administration would raise missile defense to an entirely new level. Their thinking is that, if they build it, they might as well try to make it foolproof.
"We need a system that is more robust than what the Clinton administration has designed," says Dave Smith, a top GOP missile-defense expert who served on the 1998 panel, headed by secretary of Defense nominee Donald Rumsfeld, that assessed enemy missile threats. That panel determined that North Korea and Iran were closer than previously thought to developing long-range missiles that could hit US soil, and subsequently set off today's sense of urgency to deploy a shield.
"If you want to be more robust, you have to go to sea or to space or to both," Mr. Smith says. "The system needs to be global, it needs to be layered, and it needs to have an evolutionary approach."
Accordingly, a new version of missile defense could look something like former President George Bush's plan for Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS), which involved satellite-based interceptors. That plan grew under the helm of then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
Both Vice President-elect Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld are considered strong advocates of NMD. The most likely update to GPALS would be adding sea-based interceptors, thus allowing the US to attack enemy missiles at all stages, and to protect all points on the globe, including allies and American troops stationed abroad.
Also, the US should make it clear that its defense would constantly evolve, so it could counter new technologies. By doing that, "you serve notice to any potential challengers that there's always going to be something on the drawing boards," Smith says. "You stay ahead of the threat."
Although Bush certainly couldn't make all of these add-ons even in two terms, he could put a long-term outline in the spending and research pipelines, which would be hard to stop in the future, analysts say.
Another leading missile-defense proponent, Daniel Goure of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, suggests that the new administration take a more moderate approach, at least for now. Mr. Goure would build three interceptor sites instead of one, so US territory - particularly the East Coast - would be better protected. Current plans focus on an attack against the West Coast from Asia and, critics say, neglect the possibility of an East Coast attack from the Middle East.
Also, Goure would boost spending and refine the pace of development, focusing more on test results and global events than on estimates of when potential enemies will have long-range strike capabilities.
So far, two of three tests have resulted in misses, and some critics have blamed that on a rushed schedule.
Regardless of the approach the Bush administration takes, the GOP seems determined to make the ABM Treaty a thing of the past. Baker Spring, an adviser to congressional Republicans, says the treaty is invalid and that the Senate will never ratify any agreements that prop it up. "It's a nonstarter," he says.
Republicans argue that the treaty was designed for an adversarial cold-war relationship between the US and Soviet Union. A new era in which Moscow and Washington are friendly, some say, requires a new strategic backbone, based on fewer offensive and more defensive weapons.
"Russia itself is no longer our enemy," Bush said during the campaign. "The cold-war logic that led to the creation of massive stockpiles on both sides is now outdated. Our mutual security need no longer depend on a nuclear balance of terror."
Democrats, however, argue that abandoning the ABM Treaty and building a massive missile defense will sour Washington's already tenuous relationship with Moscow - not to mention China, a country at the crossroads between friend and foe.
Furthermore, some say, diplomacy can be the best kind of missile defense. In recent months, the US has improved relations with North Korea, once considered to be the top missile threat. Pyongyang has apparently frozen its nuclear program and may be close to doing the same with missiles, Clinton administration officials say.
"It's a question of whether we want to maintain a deterrent relationship or [improve ties]," says Barry Blechman, a former member of the Rumsfeld commission.
Despite concerns about missile defense - whether because of cost, feasibility, or strategic implications - the program has momentum. Its potential of shielding America from missiles is hard for any politician to oppose. And because of that, the only limiting factor on Bush and his missile-defense plans may be the length of his tenure in office.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society