WASHINGTON - By kicking the thorny issue of national missile defense to his successor, President Clinton effectively delayed construction of an Alaska-based defense system yesterday but gave proponents of an alternative sea-based approach renewed hope that their version could be built even sooner.
Clinton needed to decide by this fall whether to go ahead with a radar system on an Aleutian island, the first part of the 100-missile defense system that was expected to be in operation by 2005. The short construction season on the barren and storm-swept island of Shemya means that even if the next president agrees to build it, another year would pass before the system is completed.
"The only effect is, we won't have a 2005 deployment," said a Pentagon official. "It will have to go to 2006."
Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican and one of the most ardent proponents of missile defense, said he was "disgusted" by Clinton's postponement of the radar system.
Weldon said the radar links could have been useful in future missile defense tests and would have meant that construction of a missile shield was finally begun. Now, he added, advocates of a sea-based approach will "cloud" the argument for the estimated $30 billion Alaska system.
"Sea-based is coming to the fore," said Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan Defense Department official and leading missile-defense advocate. "We can use existing infrastructure rather than go build one."
Henry F. Cooper, who headed national missile defense efforts during the Bush administration, said using Navy ships would be a "less expensive way to start defending the country."
Additionally, Kim R. Holmes of the conservative Heritage Foundation said he was disappointed with Clinton's delay but pleased that more attention would be given to other ways of shooting down enemy missiles.
"This will be a boost for a sea-based system," he predicted. "We should be looking at all the alternatives."
Heritage and other proponents of sea-based missile defense estimate that the Navy could have ships ready for an anti-missile role within five years at an initial cost of $3 billion. An expanded role could cost $8 billion to $10 billion, though the Pentagon puts the total at $16 billion to $19 billion.
The Navy has no part in national missile defense, because the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty bars sea-based systems. Before a sea-based system could be implemented, the treaty would have to be amended or scrapped.
Argument for ship system
But, an increasing number of defense analysts, scientists and arms control advocates believe that a system of ships would not only be less expensive but would also seem less threatening to other countries, including France, Germany and Russia, which are strongly opposed to the Alaska-based defense.
Unlike a stationary land-based system, the ships could be shifted about the globe to bring NATO allies and even Russia under a defensive umbrella. But, when and if an effective Navy system can be built is open to vigorous debate.
The Navy is working on systems designed to shoot down shorter-range missiles - rather than intercontinental ballistic missiles - that threaten U.S. troops and ships overseas. A few tests have been held, and the most recent one this summer failed. Dozens of additional tests are planned.
The Navy expects to have an anti-missile system to defeat shorter-range missiles by 2010. Officials said they could outfit a limited number of ships to take part in a missile defense by 2007. Some advocates of a sea-based system say that with a bigger budget and more testing, a Navy role in national missile defense could be developed sooner.
Part of a larger shield
Navy officials have said their system could be an added part of a land-based missile shield rather than a full-fledged alternative. While the proposed missile-defense shield based in Alaska is designed to shoot down missiles in space, a Navy system would target missiles in their earlier "boost" phase before they leave the atmosphere and are able to release decoys that can confuse an interceptor missile.
Still, a sea-based approach would pose a different set of problems. The ship must be close enough to the launch site to be able to strike the enemy missile. Also, a sea-based system could not target missiles fired far inland and across land.
Despite the growing interest in a Navy role, Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican, said the focus should remain on creating a shield in Alaska. "I'm not against a sea-based system," he said. "But the Pentagon people say we're not ready for that."