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‘Star Wars’ Was Oversold, Cheney Says

Times Staff Writer

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Tuesday that the “Star Wars” missile defense program was “oversold” by the Ronald Reagan Administration and likely would suffer substantial funding cuts in the current Pentagon budget review.

Cheney called Reagan’s dream of an impregnable shield against ballistic missiles “an extremely remote proposition,” but he said that research on “Star Wars” should continue as part of an overall arms control strategy.

Cheney’s comments marked a further retreat from the expensive anti-missile program, which already has been drastically scaled back by budgetary and technical constraints.

Biggest Defense Program

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President Bush has asked Congress for $5.9 billion for research and testing of “Star Wars” components in the 1990 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, but that apparently will be reduced. It is the single largest program in the Defense Department’s $300-billion annual budget.

In all, $17 billion has been committed to the program since 1983, when Reagan first proposed building a space shield to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.”

The Pentagon currently is seeking ways to decrease the overall defense budget by $6.3 billion, although officials have not yet identified specific programs that will be cut. The 1990 defense budget is now under scrutiny by congressional budget and appropriations committees, and it is expected that the Pentagon will be ordered to make additional cuts of several billion dollars.

Cheney said in an interview on NBC-TV Tuesday that no military program is “off limits” to Pentagon budget-cutters. He added that “Star Wars"--officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI--is “very expensive” and that all aspects of the controversial program will get a “very thorough scrub.”

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“I would argue that oftentimes, during the Reagan Administration, it was described in terms that frankly oversold the concept,” Cheney said. “We have this notion . . . of a complete shield that would be absolutely leakproof and block all incoming missiles. If you think about it in those terms, it’s going to be an extremely remote proposition.”

Cheney said, however, that SDI had “great potential” as part of a larger system of offensive and defensive weapons to counter Soviet military forces.

The Bush Administration is reviewing the nation’s strategic policies to determine what mix of land-, air- and sea-based nuclear weapons, combined with what level of defense against incoming missiles, will be most effective and affordable.

“If you look at (“Star Wars”) as a system that could interfere with a Soviet first strike on the United States, that would be able to knock out a lot of incoming warheads and thereby increase deterrence, then it becomes a very different proposition and has to be evaluated against other ways to modernize our land-based ICBM force,” Cheney said Tuesday.

“Star Wars” advocates took that comment as an endorsement of the anti-missile program and a statement of Cheney’s intent to protect it against Air Force officials who want to scrap SDI in favor of costly new bombers and missiles.

AF Wants New Bomber

Senior Air Force officials have advocated building a new bomber, the B-2 stealth, and two new missiles systems, the 10-warhead MX mounted on rail cars and the single-warhead mobile Midgetman.

But when Gen. Larry D. Welch, the Air Force chief of staff, advocated such a plan in conversations with key lawmakers, Cheney sternly chastised him in public for “free-lancing” a political deal that had not been agreed on by the President and defense secretary.

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“The admirals and generals don’t like SDI because it cuts into their turf,” retired Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, an SDI pioneer and ardent supporter, said in an interview. “If they can get a compromise to build both offensive systems (MX and Midgetman), then the defensive system will die for lack of funds.”


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