May 13, 1996 in Nation/World

Dole Tries To Revive Star Wars Push For Costly Missile Defense System May Help Gop Launch Attack At Clinton

New York Times
 

Congressional Republicans, eager to turn defense policy into a major issue in the presidential campaign, are preparing to present President Clinton with legislation they will portray as a test of his commitment to national defense.

The first test is to come in the next few weeks as the full House and Senate debate legislation sponsored by Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, that would force the United States to spend billions of dollars on deploying a national missile defense system by 2003.

The bill, reviving the national debate over the anti-missile technology popularly known as Star Wars, is expected to be passed by both the House and Senate, setting the stage for a veto by Clinton.

Called the Defend America Act, the bill is being sponsored in the House by Speaker Newt Gingrich and is to come up for a vote in the full House this week, along with a $267 billion military authorization bill.

Clinton may veto the authorization bill if it retains provisions requiring the Pentagon to spend $13 billion more than it requested.

Votes in the Senate on the missile defense bill and the Senate version of the authorization bill also are expected shortly.

Although polls suggest that American voters are far more concerned about the economy than with defense, especially with the Cold War a fading memory, Dole and other Republican leaders are eager to persuade voters that the Clinton administration has been lax on defense and that a second Clinton term could leave Americans vulnerable to attack from missiles fired by countries such as North Korea and Libya.

In recent speeches on the campaign trail, Dole has argued that Clinton’s lack of support for a missile defense system is proof of his weakness on issues of military and foreign policy.

“The fact is we can’t destroy a single missile,” Dole said in a speech last month. “That’s not because America is lacking the technical know-how. It’s because America is lacking the presidential leadership to get it done.”

In a speech last week, he called for the creation of a program in which the United States would work with Japan and South Korea on a missile defense effort to protect all three countries. “Missile defense is essential to our allies’ security,” he said.

Only Russia and China have nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that can reach the United States. Pentagon officials say it will be at least a decade before other, smaller nations develop missiles able to reach the continental United States, although they acknowledge that North Korea may be only a few years away from deploying a ballistic missile that can hit parts of Alaska and Hawaii.

Dole has focused on the threat from North Korea, which he described last week as “armed to the teeth” and “determined to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.”

The administration has proposed that instead of moving immediately to deploy a missile defense system, the Pentagon should continue to study missile defense technology for three more years and then decide on whether deployment is needed.

“The Dole-Gingrich bill says we must choose a system now and begin deploying it in three years, independent of how our threat assessment evolves,” Defense Secretary William Perry said in a recent speech. “Our plan says, ‘Let’s develop the system, then assess the threat in three years, and make our deployment decision accordingly.”’

Perry said the Dole bill would cripple the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and endanger other arms control agreements with Russia that call for the dismantling of thousands of nuclear warheads.

Moreover, administration officials say the Republicans should be far more concerned about the possibility of rogue nations or terrorist groups slipping weapons of mass destruction into the United States through less exotic means than a missile.

“A terrorist with a little technical know-how and 20 pounds of smuggled plutonium could make a bomb powerful enough to destroy a city,” said a Pentagon official “That’s what we should be worried about.”

Clinton vetoed the entire military authorization bill last year when it mandated a missile defense system. He signed a later version of the bill that removed the provision. Republicans offered the missile plan in a separate bill this year, hoping to draw more attention to the issue.

The controversy harkens back to the debate in the 1980s over the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars. The United States spent tens of billions of dollars on that research to develop a system that was never deployed to defend against incoming nuclear-armed missiles. But the research from that earlier effort could be incorporated in the missile defense system proposed in the new bill.

Dole has tried repeatedly to interject defense issues into the presidential campaign. In recent campaign appearances, he has called on Clinton to expand the production line for B-2 bombers, insisting that the planned fleet of 21 will not meet defense needs.

The administration rejected the proposal, noting that senior officials of the Air Force say it does not need more of the bombers, which cost over $500 million each.

xxxx HOW MUCH? The estimated cost of the defense system, which would use laser-equipped satellites and ground-based rockets, is more than $20 billion.

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