The Clinton administration has declared war on new Republican antimissile defense proposals, jumping into an ongoing brawl over how best to safeguard the nation's security.
The latest dispute is over a GOP-sponsored Senate bill that would require the US to build a vastly scaled-down version of the ''star wars'' national antimissile system first proposed in 1983 by former President Reagan.
The administration warns that the measure would force the US to violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM), a key arms-control accord, and prompt an enraged Moscow to backtrack on agreements to reduce by two-thirds the atomic arsenal it once aimed at this country.
GOP senators and their supporters counter that the legislation is needed because President Clinton has underestimated threats to the US from accidental missile launches by Russia or China, and the potential acquisition of long-range weapons by US adversaries such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, or Libya.
At its heart, the dispute involves more than just differences in defense philosophies: It embodies a struggle between the Congress and the president over the formulation of US national security policy. The executive branch held sway during the hot days of the cold war. But Capitol Hill has increasing sought to put its stamp on foreign and defense policies.
The GOP-sponsored Missile Defense Act of 1995 is contained in the Senate version of the fiscal 1996 defense authorization bill. Debate began yesterday and administration officials vow to lobby intensively to knock the act out of the bill before the final version is put to a vote this week.
A central provision of the act mandates the deployment by 2003 of a system of interceptors that could destroy strategic missiles as they roared toward the US. The administration says the legislation would compel the US to violate the ABM Treaty because it calls for multiple interceptor sites. The treaty restricts the US and Russia to one national missile defense (NMD) site each.
Ashton Carter, assistant defense secretary for international security policy, says that by breaching the ABM Treaty, the US could prompt Moscow to halt cuts in its nuclear arsenal mandated by the 1991 and 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties. START I implementation began last December. START II has yet to be ratified by the Russian parliament. Its members have warned that ratification depends on continued US adherence to the ABM Treaty.
''The result of this legislation would be increased nuclear threat to the United States,'' argues Dr. Carter.
Officials also contend that by requiring deployment of an NMD system by 2003, the legislation will force the expenditure of scarce resources on technology that will be outdated by the time it goes on line. They add that US intelligence estimates that no third-world state will develop missiles capable of hitting the US for at least a decade.
''It's the practice in the Department of Defense to respond to real threats,'' says Dr. Jan Lodal, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. That philosophy underlies a decision made by Clinton in 1993 to slow down NDM funding and concentrate on developing systems to protect US forces from the short- and intermediate-range missiles that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea already have. These systems, successors to the Patriots of Gulf war fame, are known as theater missile defenses.
GOP supporters of the bill retort that by delaying deployment of a national defense system, the administration will have no time to build one before the US finds itself facing possible attack.
As for the ABM Treaty, they decry it as a cold war relic that the US should unilaterally abrogate. They dismiss warnings that Russia would respond by renouncing START I and II, arguing that no matter what happens, economic pressures will compel Moscow to cut its nuclear arsenal.
''We believe the Missile Defense Act of 1995 is a responsible and measured response to the growing threat ... posed by long-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles,'' says Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a prime force behind the measure. ''Those who assert there is no threat ... only have to look at North Korea, which is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile.''