The Pentagon's top test official says that the Clinton administration's national missile defense system is behind schedule and years from possible deployment.

The beleaguered system is also the subject of a debate among administration lawyers, who have failed to reach agreement over whether beginning construction of a radar in Alaska will violate the ABM treaty.

Both developments come at a time when Defense Secretary William Cohen is preparing his recommendation to President Clinton's on proceeding with a missile defense system. To deploy a system by 2005, the date cited by the U.S. intelligence community as the earliest North Korea could pose a missile threat, Clinton needs to give approval for construction of the radar site before leaving office.

In an August 11 report, first reported by the Bloomburg News on August 29, Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's director of operational testing, noted that testing thus far does "not support a recommendation to deploy in 2005." Among the problems with the current testing schedule is a lack of realistic decoys. Coyle wrote "an operational missile defense capability has not yet been demonstrated against the simplest of realistic,unsophisticated countermeasures." On the other hand, Coyle notes that there has been "substantial progress" in developing the system's command and control technology and precision tracking radar.

On the legal side of the debate, officials from both the Pentagon and the State Department are refuting statements made by Secretary Cohen last month that indicated the administration felt confident it could begin construction in Alaska without abrogating the ABM treaty. Instead, it appears that administration lawyers have been sharply divided over what construction, if any, can take place before the U.S. is forced to pull out of the treaty. This does not bode well for a system already under fire from a wide-range of critics both at home and abroad, including many close U.S. allies. While a lack of consensus may not be enough to kill the proposed missile defense system, it certainly further damages its prospects. President Clinton is unlikely to take any action that will force the U.S. to abrogate a major international treaty and provoke global outrage.