President buries missile plan

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The Independent US

Whatever Bill Clinton's presidency is remembered for, it will not now be for realising Ronald Reagan's dream of a United States impervious to enemy missiles. Mr Clinton's decision, announced yesterday, not to give the go-ahead for a national missile defence system - commonly known as "star wars" - significantly delays, if it does not actually end, the vision of a country defending itself by knocking incoming enemy missiles out of the sky before they could reach their targets.

Whatever Bill Clinton's presidency is remembered for, it will not now be for realising Ronald Reagan's dream of a United States impervious to enemy missiles. Mr Clinton's decision, announced yesterday, not to give the go-ahead for a national missile defence system - commonly known as "star wars" - significantly delays, if it does not actually end, the vision of a country defending itself by knocking incoming enemy missiles out of the sky before they could reach their targets.

In deciding not to proceed with the project, Mr Clinton was bowing to international opinion and technological realities. He was also recognising recent changes - including the rapprochement between North and South Korea - that have made the strategic climate abroad less menacing.

Mr Clinton had said all along that when he decided on the future of the National Missile Defence project (NMD) he would be guided by four factors: technical feasibility, cost, the urgency of a missile threat against the US and the impact on arms control. In his speech yesterday he addressed all of those factors, except the estimated $60bn (£37.5bn) cost, which the Republican-majority Congress has provisionally approved.

The legal justification he cited for his decision was Washington's obligation under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to give six months' notice of any intention to breach the treaty. Mr Clinton leaves office on 20 January.

In citing the requirements of the treaty, however, Mr Clinton effectively recognised the argument, voiced strongly by Russia, that the very concept of the NMD constituted a violation of the treaty. At what stage, or even whether, the NMD would violate the treaty was a point of contention as Mr Clinton approached his decision but Russia was adamant.

President Vladimir Putin and the foreign minister Igor Ivanov used every opportunity to warn the US that the treaty was the cornerstone of the post-war arms control system and that any breach would call into question the validity of every subsequent treaty.

White House legal consultants, as well as Pentagon supporters of the project, insisted that the first stage of development - awarding construction contracts and laying the foundations for an advanced new radar station on the Alaskan island of Shemya - would not violate the treaty. Yesterday, though, Mr Clinton accepted that the treaty in its current form bans any anti-missile defences. Arms control, he insisted, was and would remain a key to global security; missile defence would never displace it entirely and he could not take a decision that would jeopardise the arms control measures already in place and possibly trigger a new arms race.

While the most vociferous, Russia was far from alone in its opposition. China was just as hostile to the NMD, seeing it as a model for a smaller missile shield that could eventually be used to protect Taiwan and, in its view, upset the strategic balance in Asia. Misgivings were voiced also by America's Nato allies. Not only did they fear the spectre of a new US-Russia arms race, they also worried that a US rendered secure by an anti-missile shield could make the allies (Canada and Europe) more vulnerable.

Mr Clinton made clear yesterday that allies' concerns played as weighty a role as Russia's legal objections. Some of the installations for the NMD, he said, would be built on allied territory and their co-operation was essential.

It was the chequered history of testing the "star wars" technology, however, that probably made Mr Clinton's decision inevitable. In only one of the three tests conducted by the Pentagon has the detect-launch-kill sequence functioned as planned: the early-warning satellite detected the incoming missile, the "killer" warhead was launched and successfully destroyed the invader.

In the latest test, the booster rocket propelling the "killer" warhead failed at an early stage. To supporters of the NMD, this was a mere detail. It is now apparent the booster rocket design has had to go back to the drawing board.

Between the lines of Mr Clinton's speech, it was clear also that he had accepted the devastating critique of Harvard scientists who argued that that the technology was incapable of distinguishing a real incoming warhead from a decoy. There were real questions, Mr Clinton said, "about the ability of the system to deal with countermeasures".

So the testing will continue, but the dream of the pro-NMD lobby of initiating the world's first national missile defence system will not be realised. In the end, Mr Clinton's decision was made easier by two additional, and quite unanticipated, developments. One was the thaw in North-South Korea relations and North Korea's reported offer to scrap its missile programme. The other was the US political climate. Two weeks ago, the shelving of the NMD might have been an electoral liability for the Vice President, exposing him to the old accusation of being "soft" on defence. In recent campaign skirmishes about military readiness, however, Al Gore has prevailed over his Republican opponents.

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