Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger now feels that the United States need not perfect a multilayered missile shield before beginning its deployment. Instead, recent briefings have convinced him that missile defenses could be erected in stages as pieces of the shield finish development. But the Pentagon is still far from deciding exactly what the initial stages of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) would look like, said Mr. Weinberger in a meeting with a small group of reporters.
``We don't have a patent taken out on Phase 1,'' he said.
Weinberger added that any initial phase would not be what defense experts refer to as ``traditional ABM'' - interceptor rockets based on the ground. And it would be designed to protect the US population, not missile silos.
The secretary of defense has always talked like a strong supporter of the SDI, and in recent weeks his language has become, if anything, more enthusiastic.
Weinberger has not gone so far as to ally himself with SDI's most ardent supporters in Congress, such as Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana, who argues that deployment could begin soon using available technology.
``What is technically possible today is not the kind of thing that we need to deploy,'' said Weinberger.
On other topics, Weinberger said:
The US-backed contras fighting the Nicaraguan government have recently stepped up activity.
From their Honduran bases the contras have moved ``a substantial number of [soldiers] into Nicaragua - a lot more than they had a few weeks ago,'' said the secretary of defense.
He added that the anti-Sandinista fighters still need a steady resupply and could do nothing without US aid.
Weinberger also denied that Honduras was tired of hosting the contras and had given them a deadline to withdraw from their bases in that country.
He said that if the contras dissolved as an army the US would have to begin thinking about committing more of its own armed forces to Latin America.
If there were no internal resistance in Nicaragua and the Sandinista leadership continued to accept military aid from the Soviet Union, the US military would have to take ``extra precautions, as we do in the case of Cuba. You have to put your forces where the threat is,'' said Weinberger, adding that such a scenario was quite hypothetical.
Israel is seriously considering scrapping its Lavi fighter plane project, which is largely funded with US aid, and adopting an alternative such as coproduction of the US F-16.
If US aid ``is going into an inferior airplane, our money is not being put to its intended purpose,'' said the defense secretary.
Preliminary indications are that if a Marine guard at the US Embassy in Moscow helped a Soviet agent bug the embassy, as has been alleged, it amounts to a quite-serious breach of US security.
``We hope it won't add to the [espionage] losses we've already suffered, which are quite substantial,'' said Weinberger.
There will not be a military procurement budget crunch in the early 1990s, when many weapons now in development begin production.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has warned that there are too many new weapons system starts in the budget and that painful choices will have to be made eventually among such systems as a new tilt-rotor aircraft, a new Army helicopter, and a new attack submarine.
``There's nothing special about the '90s,'' said Weinberger. ``Unfortunately it, takes a lot of very expensive equipment'' to defend the country.