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Tuesday, 1 May, 2001, 21:01 GMT 22:01 UK
Hurdles for US missile defence plans
Miniature version of a kill device on display at the Pentagon
President Bush is trying to lure allies to his project
By defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus

President George W Bush has been loud and clear in his views on missile defence. Although he has given few details, he is committed to pressing ahead.

But two critical sets of problems remain - some technical, the rest diplomatic.

US President George W Bush
Mr Bush wants to get Russia on board
For a start, the Bush administration is no closer to a workable missile defence system than was its predecessor.

Indeed the complexity of the project is even greater. Firstly because Mr Bush ultimately wants a more complex, layered system of defences that would not rest solely upon a system of land-based interceptors.

But also because the geographical scope of the project has expanded dramatically.

Inclusiveness

In an effort to win over wavering allies, the Bush team has dropped the 'national' from the missile defence project. What's being proposed is in effect potentially a multi-national defence system covering the territory of as many countries that want to sign on.

Pentagon NMD slide
The project is still on the drawing board
The bigger the area to be defended, the greater the technical challenge ahead.

But the recasting of the project to widen its scope is driven by politics: the need to avoid the appearance of the US becoming a missile-proof sanctuary leaving its friends and allies open to attack.

Thus Mr Bush is stressing the inclusiveness of the scheme.

And for those who see missile defence as a dangerous negative step away from arms control, the president is seeking to offer significant cut-backs in nuclear warheads as part of a broader disarmament and security package.


Russia's acquiescence is essential if the road-block of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is to be removed

This is intended not just to prove to allies that Mr Bush is serious about strategic arms reductions.

It is also the bait to draw an unwilling Russia into the fold.

Russia

Moscow badly wants further weapons cuts to reduce the cost of maintaining its nuclear arsenal.

And Russia's acquiescence is essential if the road-block of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is to be removed.

This cold war agreement prevents the development of even limited missile defences and the Bush team says it is redundant and irrelevant.

But they would clearly prefer to amend or abandon it in concert with the Russians. China

Of course the other great critic of missile defence is China.

US weapons cuts are unlikely to satisfy Beijing whose small inter-continental nuclear deterrent would be compromised by even limited US defences.

China's resolute opposition may influence America's friends in the region - one way or another - some of whom at least are weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of missile defence for their own security.

But even Mr Bush's political will cannot wish a missile defence system into existence.

Even a sea-based US system - probably the closest practical option - could still be some years away.

South Korean protest against NMD
There is widespread opposition to the project
There is time for the US, its allies and Moscow at least to try to come up with some mutually acceptable solution.

The announcement of the despatch of high level delegations to Europe and Asia is intended to show that consultation means just that.

But many of America's allies are still sceptical and it is far from clear that Moscow sees any advantage in allowing the Americans to walk away from the ABM treaty.

This is very much the start of a process; so many of the technical problems remain unresolved.

Indeed, the more countries the missile defence scheme is intended to protect, so the greater the practical problems involved.

Mr Bush is also going to have to convince his domestic critics that the huge price tag for missile defence will actually be money well-spent, particularly as the costs could turn out to be far out of proportion to the scale of the threat.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Tom Carver reports
"The Bush administration has big plans for America's nuclear defence system"
Daniel Plesh, BASIC
"We're loking at the President proclaiming a new nuclear anarchy"
Professor David Wall, defence analyst
"President Bush will effectively tear up the anit-ballistic missile treaty"
See also:

22 Feb 01 | Middle East
Analysis: A tougher line?
01 May 01 | Americas
Bush's missile defence diplomacy
01 May 01 | Americas
Bush pushes for missile shield
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