IF some Republican hawks get their way, the Pentagon would be required to deploy by 2003 a system to defend the United States from a limited ballistic missile attack.
Such a system would be a far cry from the space-based laser arsenal envisioned by President Reagan. Instead, it would consist of ground-based missiles, poised to shoot down incoming warheads.
But the Clinton administration worries that such plans could do more harm than good. They argue that an antimissile defense plan would force the US to violate the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and perhaps push Russia to pull out of the new START II arms-control pact.
Aides say GOP leaders plan to reintroduce as free-standing legislation a national missile defense (NMD) provision they scrubbed last month from the $265 billion fiscal 1996 Defense Authorization Act. In return for their previous dropping of the issue, President Clinton reluctantly agreed to sign the bill, which is $7 billion higher than he had requested.
To muster backing for the new bill, Republicans are determined to make missile defense a campaign issue by accusing Mr. Clinton of exposing the country to potential catastrophe by rejecting the NMD.
"This is just the beginning of an all-out war to make missile defense the lead issue in the presidential campaign in terms of protecting the American people," declares Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Military Research and Development Subcommittee.
Whether Clinton will be vulnerable on NMD, however, is highly uncertain. Two polls last year found that most Americans oppose spending the huge sums needed for an NMD system. The findings reflect broader surveys showing that with the end of the cold war, voters are more concerned about issues such as the deficit, education, and welfare reform than with defense.
Republicans retort that most Americans are misinformed about NMD. Their polling indicates that many believe former President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "star wars," actually produced a shield against missile attacks. It is by dispelling this myth that they believe they can score political points against Clinton.
"This is a campaign issue that he [Clinton] will no longer be able to trivialize," says Weldon.
In reconciling different versions of the Defense Authorization Act, a House-Senate conference committee late last year included in a compromise bill a provision requiring the deployment by 2003 of an NMD system capable of protecting all 50 states from a limited ballistic missile attack.
The bill passed both houses. But Clinton vetoed it on Dec. 28, citing the NMD plan among several provisions he opposed. In subsequent bargaining with the White House, GOP leaders agreed to drop the NMD language entirely and a revised bill won final approval on Jan. 26. Clinton is expected to sign it this week.
Proponents of the excised NMD provision remain determined to keep it alive.
They argue that while the US no longer faces a threat of massive nuclear attack from its erstwhile Soviet rival, an adversary such as North Korea or Iraq is likely to acquire in coming years one or several long-range missiles they can fit with nuclear, biological, or chemical warheads and lob at the US.
The US can take preemptive action now, they assert, by building a system of interceptor missiles that can detect and destroy a small number of incoming warheads. The Air Force says it can have a $2.5 billion system in place in four years by converting Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles into interceptors.
Administration officials reject the plan as ill-timed, wasteful, and detrimental to US-Russian nuclear disarmament efforts.
They say there is no reason to rush a system into operation, since US intelligence agencies believe that no adversary will possess the capability of launching a ballistic missile at the US for at least 10 years. They also argue that the GOP's NMD plan would likely compel the US to violate a 1972 treaty with Russia on limiting anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems.
The ABM Treaty restricts the sides to one NMD site each. But, administration officials says, it would be impossible to protect all 50 states from missile attack, as the GOP plan requires, with only one NMD site.
They add that should the US breach the ABM Treaty by developing multiple sites, the Russian Parliament has said it will refuse to ratify the 1992 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), which mandates new cuts in US and Russian nuclear weapons. The Senate ratified START II on Jan. 26.
"If you put the ABM Treaty at risk, you risk losing the benefits of the START II treaty," says Robert Bell, the National Security Council official who oversees NMD issues.
Administration officials believe that the Pentagon should aggressively pursue NMD research and development, but that a deployment decision should be delayed for at least three years. If approved at that time, a system could be operational within another three years, they say.
"It would be a mistake to make a deployment decision now when the threat does not require it, and force us to divert billions of dollars into a defense program ... at the expense of other defense programs," says Mr. Bell.
Weldon rejects the administration's arguments. The intelligence estimates that it cites are a "total, complete whitewash" that purposely downplay the missile threat against the US, he says. That way, the administration can avoid launching an aggressive NMD deployment plan that would exacerbate rocky relations with Russia, he says.
The potential for a limited missile attack is growing, he adds. As evidence, he cites recent news reports that Jordan intercepted an Iraq-bound shipment of advanced Russian-made ballistic missile guidance technology.
Says Weldon: "It's time for a full airing of this issue."
'This is just the beginning of an all-out war to make missile defense the lead issue in the presidential campaign....'