President Clinton is juggling considerable risks and benefits in pushing a new plan to step up development of a system to defend the United States against limited long-range missile attack.
On one hand, the plan unveiled last week should secure Mr. Clinton's domestic political flank against GOP complaints that he is responding too slowly to growing threats from "rogue" states like North Korea and Iran.
The plan, which Congress must approve, will also boost the Pentagon's depleted research and development budget, while bringing new defense dollars and jobs to states critical to the Democrats in the 2000 elections. It also allows more time for solving major technical problems.
The downsides: The persisting technical hurdles could result in a system that doesn't work at a cost that may eventually soar to an estimated $28 billion. Such was the case with a system that was shut down in 1974 after less than a year in operation.
Furthermore, while disarming Republicans of an issue they have long championed and wanted to use against Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid, Clinton has ignited new frictions with Russia and China that some experts warn could undermine nuclear-arms control efforts.
"This decision is being driven by [domestic] politics, not by technology and not by threats," says Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "It jeopardizes the strategic arms-reduction process with Russia and provokes China."
Russia is especially miffed by suggestions that the US might abrogate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty unless Russia agrees to changes that would allow construction of the US system. The pact now prohibits nationwide antimissile defenses to ensure nuclear deterrence.
Under fiscal pressure to cut its atomic arsenal, cash-short Russia is deeply wary of any US action it believes could blunt its shrinking nuclear punch.
Indeed, Russia's communist-dominated parliament is expected to condition its long-delayed ratification of the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty - which slashes the sides' deployed warheads from 6,000 to 3,500 - on continued US adherence to the ABM accord.
"Once [the Americans] become sure that they can defend themselves against our missiles, they will start speaking to us from a position of strength," Gen. Yuri Lebedev, a veteran Russian arms-control negotiator, was quoted as saying on Friday.
"No," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov replied bluntly when asked the same day about the possibility of amending the ABM pact. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is to explore the issue further in talks she holds today with Mr. Ivanov in Moscow.
China, whose 13 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are a tiny fraction of US and Russian arsenals, also worries a US national missile defense (NMD) system could blunt its atomic deterrent. Clinton's plan "will not contribute to international arms control and disarmament efforts," says Sun Yuxi, at the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
The Russian and Chinese objections are provoking concerns among some American experts that deployment of a NMD system by the US might even prompt Beijing and Moscow to boost their nuclear arsenals so they could be sure of overwhelming it.
"They would see this as something that raised questions of the effectiveness of their deterrent," says Spurgeon Keany, director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
US officials say they won't be able to propose specific changes in the ABM Treaty until the design of the NMD system is final. Nor will a final deployment decision be made until 2000, with construction to start in 2005, two years later than planned.
And US officials insist they want to maintain the ABM pact as a "cornerstone" of the US-Rus-sian arms control regime.
"There are proposals to withdraw as though this was a new thought," says State Department spokesman James Rubin. "We don't want to exercise that right. We want to talk with the Russians in a serious way."
US officials say they are confident they can ease Russian and Chinese concerns that the NMD system will create a strategic imbalance, insisting that it will be too small to negate their nuclear deterrents.
"The design of this system is primarily aimed at the capability to defeat a rogue state that acquires a very small number of ICBMs equipped with weapons of destruction," adds National Security Council official Bob Bell.
Nuts and bolts of plan
The administration's plan, unveiled last week, calls for pumping up the Pentagon's NMD budget by $6.6 billion to $10.5 billion to underwrite deployment of an NMD system, development of which was awarded last year to Boeing Co. Previously, funding had been restricted to research and development.
Unlike former President Reagan's "star wars" initiative for a massive space-based antinuclear shield, the plan envisions a system of one or two sites that would loft interceptors at incoming warheads.
But prototype interceptors have repeatedly failed to hit their targets, and critics point out that the decision to deploy a system will be made before trials are completed.
The new moves follow a report by an independent panel warning that countries like North Korea and Iran could develop missiles (far earlier than previously projected) capable of hitting the US.
Then in August, North Korea surprised Washington by test-firing a three-stage, Taepo-dong I medium-range rocket over Japan.
Says Defense Secretary William Cohen: "The Taepo-dong I test was another strong indication that the United States ... will face a rogue nation missile threat to our homeland against which we have to defend the American people."
But some experts are deeply skeptical of such assessments. "We are getting into a fantasy land of fear here," says Mr. Keany.