LONDON — The Bush administration has put its European allies on notice that it intends to move quickly to develop a missile defense and plans to abandon or fundamentally alter the treaty that has been the keystone of arms control for nearly 30 years.
The administration's position on the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which sets strict limits on the testing and deployment of antimissile systems, has been communicated privately to NATO allies. And it was expressed publicly in Europe in an unusually frank address last week by a senior State Department official.
"We will deploy defenses as soon as possible," Lucas Fischer, the deputy assistant secretary of state for strategic affairs, told the Danish Parliament. "Therefore, we believe that the ABM treaty will have to be replaced, eliminated or changed in a fundamental way."
The missile defense issue will come to the fore this week, and the scale of the program and the almost urgent way the administration is proceeding are likely to heighten debate over the system. On Tuesday, President Bush is to deliver a speech at the National Defense University on his plans to develop a missile shield in conjunction with cuts in nuclear arms, steps he pledged during the presidential campaign.
A senior Pentagon official said today that Mr. Bush would present a broad vision of missile defense but not a specific program. The president will make clear that his administration is moving beyond the ABM treaty. It will be a statement of intent, the official said, expressed in "very choice" words.
American officials say the Pentagon is developing plans for a multilayered system that would involve ship-based radars and interceptors, in addition to land-based and space- based elements. A panel appointed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has recommended vastly increased spending on the development of an airborne laser and, in the longer-term, a space-based laser. Decisions about the design are to be announced later in May, the Pentagon official said.
After Mr. Bush's speech, the administration plans to dispatch teams of senior officials to allied capitals in Europe and Asia to outline the administration's proposals for moving ahead with missile defenses, a policy that is contentious at home and abroad, and which has drawn sharp objections from Moscow and Beijing.
In addressing the Danish Parliament, Mr. Fischer said the aim of the missile defenses is to defend not only against attacks from rogue states like Iran or Iraq but also against accidental or unauthorized launches. That means the defense system needs to have some capacity to counter the launching of Russian and Chinese missiles.
In terms of effectiveness, Mr. Fischer signaled that the administration has set a low standard. The goal would not necessarily be to provide an air-tight defense against even a small attack. It would be enough to complicate "a prospective opponent's calculation of success, adding to his uncertainty and weakening his confidence," he said.
He also said the administration believed that the system should use "the best technologies available," opening the door not only to land- based systems but to sea-based and space-based systems as well.
His audience was important because Denmark governs Greenland, the site of an American missile- warning radar that Washington would also certainly seek to upgrade as part of its missile defense plan.
In Europe, allied governments have been notably unenthusiastic about the plans for a missile defense. But they have grudgingly indicated that they were prepared to go along with a limited antimissile defense with conditions: Washington should consult first with its allies, and a way should be found to reconcile missile defenses with arms control and a working relationship with Moscow.
The fast pace and ambitious nature of the administration's antimissile defense program — and the administration's renewed vow to jettison or fundamentally rewrite the treaty — is likely to reinvigorate the trans-Atlantic debate.
The accord, which was concluded between Moscow and Washington, was seen for decades as the cornerstone for strategic arms control. And while European officials increasingly agree that the treaty should be revised or updated, they are anxious about getting rid of it without knowing what arrangement would replace it.
"Europe is prepared to accept some kind of missile defense but only if it involves cooperation with Russia on modifying the ABM treaty," said Ivo Daalder, a specialist on European security issues with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But the implication of the Bush administration plan is that the ABM treaty as we know it is dead. There is no way you can fit the administration's kind of missile defense plan within the treaty."
To make its missile defense plan more palatable, the Bush administration has signaled its intention to make deep cuts in nuclear arms, including unilateral measures. Such steps could include taking some American missiles and bombers off alert as well as making unilateral cuts in the American nuclear arsenal, which currently exceeds 7,000 weapons. The administration's hope is that the cuts may reassure the Russians. And the administration is also calculating that such moves will persuade the allies and the American public that missile defense is not incompatible with some form of arms control.
But it remains to be seen if the prospect of deeper cuts will be enough of a lure for Moscow. The United States is already committed to cutting its strategic nuclear warheads to 3,500 under Start II, the 1993 strategic arms reduction treaty, and the Clinton administration was prepared to reduce the American arsenal to 2,500 as part of follow-on accord, which has yet to be negotiated.
But Russia faces enormous budgetary problems in sustaining its arsenal and has urged that the number of nuclear warheads be slashed to 1,500 on each side. At the same time, however, Moscow has argued that Washington's pursuit of a missile shield will undermine the basis for existing and future strategic arms treaties.
And if Moscow does not accept the administration's missile defense plan and insists that it means an end to strategic arms treaties, it is unclear if the sort of unilateral cuts the administration has in mind will be seen by the American allies as an adequate substitute for formal arms- control agreements, which are legally binding on both the United States and Russia and have provisions for on-site verification.
Much also depends on whether the allies believe that the Bush administration is committed to genuine consultations or whether it has made up its mind already. "The bottom line is whether the allies are told this is a finished plan or whether their views will be taken into account in the final design of the architecture of the system and in the combination of arms control measures," said Constance Stelzenmüller, a security expert at the German newspaper Die Zeit.
By all accounts, the Bush administration's approach is fundamentally different from that of the Clinton administration, which designed a more limited system.
The Clinton administration's system involved the deployment of 100 interceptors and the construction of a battle-management radar on Shemya island in the Alaskan Aleutians. The goal was to persuade the Russians to amend the ABM treaty, not to replace it.
But conservative Republicans, including those in top positions in the Bush administration, derided that approach. They have argued that the Clinton administration was avoiding some of the most promising antimissile technologies so that it could preserve a cold-war-era treaty.
It is not clear when a missile defense might be deployed or how well it might work. Conservatives have long wanted to move quickly to breach the strict limits that the ABM treaty sets on the testing and deployment of antimissile systems. Their goal is to make the accord a dead letter and put the United States on an irreversible path toward missile defense, even if it takes a decade or longer to develop a substantial system.
In keeping with the Bush administration's approach, the Pentagon has proposed sharply increasing spending on the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which oversees the development of defensive systems and which currently has an annual budget of $4.4 billion.
According to a briefing paper that circulated in the Pentagon in the last week, a panel appointed by Mr. Rumsfeld proposed vastly increasing the spending pool, with $2.7 billion over six years for accelerated work on an airborne laser system and $2.3 billion to accelerate a space- based laser system. The panel also recommended spending $2.8 billion over six years to expand the Navy's theater defense system, based on Aegis-equipped warships.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told Congress last week that when the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, goes to Washington for talks next month, the administration will inform him of its total commitment to missile defense.
"If one moves in the direction of missile defense, at some point you hit the limits prescribed by the ABM treaty," General Powell said. "And I will be discussing with Minister Ivanov our commitment to move forward and how he has to understand and our friends have to understand, that something has to give way at that point."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company