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U.S., in Shift, Looks to Allies to Help in Development of a Missile Defense

June 29, 2002|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has begun a new effort to develop its missile defense system the way President Reagan originally envisioned it: as an international project that would protect not only the United States but also its friends around the globe from missile attack.

With the U.S. withdrawal this month from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which limited such systems, Defense Department officials say they are now free to propose to foreign governments and companies a variety of joint efforts to develop and test new missile defense products and to cooperate in deployment of the equipment.

In this new phase, the Pentagon's biggest acquisition program will be reshaped as ''a bridge to our allies and friends,'' Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said earlier this month in remarks at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Western Europe and Japan head the list of regions that U.S. defense officials envision as part of a patchwork of missile defense systems working jointly. Allies would play different roles, sometimes jointly developing pieces of the systems, taking part in testing or exercises, or simply allowing use of air fields or ports.

But winning agreement even from close allies promises to be difficult, not only because of international skepticism about the need for missile defense but also because of budget and security issues and complex regional politics that prevent friendly nations from always lining up with U.S. interests.

Turning missile defense into a cooperative venture serves an important political purpose for the administration: It can help combat the perception that missile defense demonstrates how Bush prefers to go it alone, even in the face of international opposition.

Yet U.S. officials and experts say there are also reasons why missile defense must be an international program if it is to work at all.

As a practical matter, the United States remains vulnerable to coercion by missile-armed nations as long as they can threaten key allies, they say.

Even if the Pentagon were certain it could shield New York and Los Angeles, an adversary could force the U.S. hand by menacing an allied capital. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, for example, might influence U.S. plans for an attack in the Middle East by threatening London, Paris or Berlin, said Jacques F. Gansler, former undersecretary of Defense for acquisitions and technology.

''We have always thought that a threat to our major allies was a threat to us as well,'' he said. ''It's in our interest to protect these capitals, as well as New York and Los Angeles.''

Missile defense also needs to be a cooperative venture because of the U.S. practice of fighting wars in battlefield coalitions.

If an incoming missile is streaking toward a joint force, ''you're not going to say, 'I wonder whose troops it's heading for,' '' Gansler said. ''You're going to need to protect the entire force.''

Another key reason is the Pentagon's need to have foreign governments' permission to move missile defense equipment through foreign territory to base it near the threat.

Several kinds of antimissile systems perform better if their radar, infrared sensors and missile interceptors are close to the source of the attack. The Pentagon might want permission to move antimissile Aegis cruisers through foreign ports and land airborne laser aircraft at foreign air bases.

The Defense Department could minimize this need by turning to a space-based system, but that kind of system is still many years from completion and is as yet unproved.

The Pentagon has already been working on a variety of missile defense projects with allies.

These include the Arrow medium-range missile defense system, which is underway with the Israelis, and the Medium Extended Air Defense System, or MEADS, a mobile system to protect troops that the Pentagon is working on with Germany and Italy. The United States and Japan have been jointly researching several kinds of missile component systems.

Yet because of the ABM Treaty requirements, U.S. officials say, the joint projects have until now been limited to short-range missile systems. The United States was also barred from basing abroad any component of a system, such as radars, that would be part of a national defense against long-range missiles.

Pentagon officials intended to focus their effort on forging deals with Japan and European countries, possibly including Russia. Their first emphasis will be on missile defense systems designed to protect troops overseas--the area on which there is greatest agreement on the threat.

Even so, experts and defense contractors believe it will be tricky to make such ventures work.

One issue is the political ambivalence about missile defense in these allied countries, where many people still wonder about the extent of the threat and fear that building defenses could provoke other countries to expand their arsenals.

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