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Washington Journal: U.S. Plans Missile Defense System

Washington, 21 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Defense Secretary William Cohen says the United States is seeking to deploy a missile defense network aimed at protecting Americans at home and U.S. troops abroad from weapons of mass destruction.

Cohen told a news conference Wednesday the proposed system is not intended to counter Russia's nuclear arsenal. He and other Defense Department officials said it is designed to address threats that come primarily from rogue states such as North Korea and Iraq.

Cohen said the department would seek $6.6 billion to cover costs of the program. The request would bring total funding for the proposed project to $10.5 billion. The U.S. Congress must approve the funding request.

Military experts say that even if such a network were successfully deployed in the next century, it would still be a pared-down version of a Star Wars defense system contemplated by then-President Ronald Reagan. That system envisioned shielding the United States from a Soviet nuclear attack at a much greater cost.

In his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Bill Clinton said that he would ask Congress to increase defense spending over the next several years. Overall U.S. military spending has declined since the end of the Cold War.

Cohen said the proposed defense system will be carried out in accordance with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), an agreement signed with Russia that limits the scope of certain weapons. But he said U.S. deployment might require modification to the treaty, and added that Washington is working to determine the nature and depth of these modifications.

Cohen also noted that the 1972 ABM treaty provides for the right of withdrawal from the accord, with six months' notice, if a party concludes that it is in its supreme national interest.

At a separate news conference, U.S. Ambassador at large Stephen Sestanovich said:

"This is a problem that all countries are increasingly facing -- the spread of missile technologies and of nuclear weapons capability. (It) creates new security threats for us, for Russia, for Ukraine, for other countries. This is a problem that we have been talking about for some years and the latest decision recognizes that over the next couple (of) years there may be a need to take further steps."

Sestanovich is the State Department's special U.S. envoy to the states of the former Soviet Union.

He said anticipated reaction from Russia should range from fierce denunciation to a serious recognition that this is a growing problem to U.S. and Russia's national security alike.

At the Defense Department, Cohen said the U.S. has already begun environmental site surveys for potential basing sites in the states of Alaska and North Dakota and has briefed Russian officials on these activities. He said the U.S. expects to have the system deployed by the year 2005, sooner if testing goes well. A final decision will be made by the year 2000.

U.S. officials say the ballistic missile threat to American forces deployed around the globe is real. They add that in South Korea, where the U.S. has some 38,000-service personnel, these forces are within range of recently developed North Korean missiles.

In the Persian Gulf, officials say another 20,000 American military personnel fall within the range of Iraqi missiles, which could be fitted with weapons of mass destruction.