The Bush administration expects to withdraw from a cornerstone arms control treaty in less than two years, according to a newly prepared statement of administration policy.
The document, obtained Wednesday on the eve of congressional testimony on antimissile systems, says that the administration's ambitious testing plans will conflict with the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and thus force withdrawal from the pact "within months, not years."
The statement is the clearest signal to date of the administration's intentions regarding the treaty and appears to be aimed at resolving seeming contradictions in earlier pronouncements from various officials.
It is likely to be warmly received by missile defense advocates and attacked by members of Congress, U.S. allies and arms control advocates who want the United States to remain with the treaty. The ABM Treaty was designed to limit development of antimissile systems as a means of averting a further nuclear arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
The policy statement, which incorporates several earlier papers on missile defense, was drafted earlier this month. In recent days, it was distributed to lawmakers and to foreign governments, according to an administration official.
Some observers said that the document suggests that the administration's most ardent missile defense advocates, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, are prevailing in the debate on the issue within senior administration ranks.
The policy statement says the administration doesn't intend to conduct its antimissile tests "solely . . . to exceed treaty constraints." Yet, unlike the Clinton administration, there is also no intent to "design tests to conform to, or stay within, the confines of the treaty."
White House officials argue that the ABM Treaty has outlived its usefulness with the end of the Cold War. They say they intend to develop antimissile systems that will protect the United States from a small-scale attack by "rogue" nations.
One administration official, who asked to remain unidentified pending today's testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it is impossible to predict precisely when the testing program will require withdrawal from the treaty. This is because of the ambiguities of the pact and because the pace of the development program is difficult to predict, the official said.
But he acknowledged that administration officials believe that a conflict with the treaty will occur within about two years.
Fast Deployment Seen of 'Emergency' System
The document also suggests that the administration intends to try to quickly deploy a rudimentary "emergency" antimissile system that includes not only a ground-based component but also other components in the air and in the sea.
Two weeks ago, the administration's defense budget for fiscal 2002 disclosed that the administration wants to build an antimissile test site in Alaska that could be converted for use as a rudimentary antimissile system if the United States were threatened. Ground-based antimissile systems have received the most money and attention in recent years and were the central focus of the Clinton administration's missile defense efforts.
The new documents suggest that administration officials would like to round out the basic ground-based system by adding an aircraft-mounted antimissile laser, as well as a sea-based antimissile system, as quickly as possible.
This suggests the administration is concerned about the threat of a missile attack from North Korea, since an airborne laser is the kind of weapon that might be suitable to patrol North Korean airspace. Administration officials fear the North Koreans are close to developing a simple intercontinental ballistic missile that might reach the fringes of North America and Hawaii.
While the first flight test of the airborne laser is not until 2003, administration officials suggested in the document that they might try to deploy it swiftly if it is able to knock down a missile in that test. In its fiscal 2002 budget, the Bush administration has proposed adding $196 million to the budget of the airborne laser program, nearly doubling it.
Some administration officials have argued for some time that the United States should be prepared to use whatever antimissile equipment it has on hand, even if incomplete, if an emergency threatens. Hadley, the deputy national security advisor, made that argument last year in an article in a scholarly journal.
The new policy paper says that, because the "limited interim capabilities" are not likely to perform flawlessly, "critics may accuse us of deploying systems that do not work. . . . [But] a limited interim capability is warranted in light of existing and emerging near-term threats and the unpredictable nature of those threats."
Arms control advocates dispute the administration's contentions that the Pentagon missile testing program would violate the ABM Treaty within two years. They say the administration is making that argument only to lay the groundwork for withdrawal from the treaty.
Missile Technology Isn't in Place Yet
Joseph Cirincione, a proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the Pentagon is far from having the kind of airborne and sea-based antimissile systems that, in tests, would violate the treaty.
"The technology just isn't there," he said.
Cirincione speculated that the administration had issued this latest statement of missile defense policy to strongly reaffirm its intentions to abandon the treaty.
The administration had created that impression in its first few weeks in office.
But more recently, Cirincione said, the administration's intentions had become less clear amid a chorus of opposition to its plans from allies and the Democrats who now control the Senate.