President Clinton has delayed any decision regarding deployment of national missile defenses (NMD) until the next President takes office.
In announcing the delay, the President acknowledged that on three main fronts, too much remains to be done to support the deployment of NMD; the technology remains unproven and unreliable, U.S. allies remain opposed to the deployments; and Russia and China have both threatened significant responses to any NMD system.
However, the President voiced his belief "that all these challenges can be met in time" and added that he has directed Defense Secretary Cohen to "continue a robust program of development and testing." He went on to state that if the next President choses to move forward with the system, it could be ready by 2006 or 2007.
In recent months, political support for deploying the system has evaporated. Respected experts including former Senator Sam Nunn, former secretary of defense William Perry and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Shalikasvilli have all urged the President to leave the NMD decision to the next administration.
The system has also come under fire from scientists. Both individual researchers and scientific organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, have warned of the system's inherent vulnerability to simple countermeasures and the lack of realistic testing, points that were echoed in the President's speech.
Further supporting the decision to delay was the disclosure that the Boeing Company was months, perhaps a year, behind in design and testing of the new booster for the ground-based interceptor. The Pentagon's top tester said this month that the tests so far (two failures in three attempts) did not support a decision to deploy.
There is likely to be little political fallout from the decision. Republican attacks on defense have been poorly supported, and have not generated much political gain thus far. Further, even Republicans have been split on the issue of missile defenses, with many urging the president to delay a decision so that the next president would be free to pursue his own, potentially more complex and elaborate plans. The system favored by presidential candidate Governor George Bush is tens times much complicated, expensive and therefore even less feasible, than the plan favored by President Clinton. Gov. Bush favors a return to the system proposed by President Bush and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney in 1999. Known as GPALS (Global Protection Against Limited Strikes), it is a land-, sea- and space-based design that was estimated at the time to cost at least $85 billion and face numerous technical challenges.