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The BBC's Philippa Thomas
"If the Republicans take over they say it will be full steam ahead"
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US President, Bill Clinton
"I have decided not to authorise national missile defence at this time"
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Saturday, 2 September, 2000, 03:33 GMT 04:33 UK
Clinton delays missile decision

US President Bill Clinton has decided to leave to his successor the decision on whether to go ahead with a controversial national anti-missile defence shield.


We should use this time to ensure that NMD, if deployed, would actually enhance our overall national security

Bill Clinton
The US president said, because of test failures, "I simply cannot conclude with the information we have today that we have enough confidence" in the technology to move towards deployment.

Mr Clinton's decision delays by at least a year the development of the national missile defence system (NMD), under which a shield would be set up to protect the US from attack by detecting incoming nuclear devices and then launching missiles to knock them out in space.

The $60bn programme has been dogged by staunch opposition from countries such as China and Russia, as well as a series of expensive test failures.

Backers of the anti-missile system say it is needed to counter threats from countries such as Iraq and North Korea, but opponents say it is too costly, will not work and will lead to a new arms race and the proliferation of nuclear weapons in countries such as China, India and Pakistan.

'Better partnership'

In a speech at Georgetown University, Mr Clinton said the NMD technology was promising but the system as a whole was not yet proven. But he said he would order a "robust" programme of further testing.

Missile test
Tests on the system failed in July
Mr Clinton said he would not allow the Pentagon to award contracts to begin building a new high-powered radar in the Aleutian Islands. In putting off this step, he effectively pushed the decision on finishing onto the next president.

"We should use this time to ensure that NMD, if deployed, would actually enhance our overall national security," he said.

Mr Clinton said his decision would also give the US more time to resolve differences with its Nato allies, who fear the scheme could prompt a new arms race, and with Russia, which he said feared such a defence shield would undermine the viability of their own nuclear weapons systems.

"The United States and Russia still have nuclear arsenals that can devastate each other, and this is still a period of transition in our relationship.

"Therefore, for them, as well as for us, maintaining strategic stability increases trust and confidence on both sides; it reduces the risk of confrontation; it makes it possible to build an even better partnership, and an even safer world."

'Prudent'

The Russian army welcomed the "constructive" announcement.

Bill Clinton
Clinton wants to use extra time to ensure NMD can enhance national security
General Leonid Ivashov, the Russian army's second in command, told the Interfax news agency: "There is hope that a balanced approach will prevail in deciding important international problems."

Russia has argued that the NMD programme contravenes the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which bans the deployment of nationwide nuclear defence systems.

Alongside China, Russia has also warned that the deployment of NMD could spark a new nuclear arms race.

The move was also greeted by Nato Secretary-General George Robertson.

"The decision... to continue testing amd development of a limited national missile defence system, while reserving judgement on eventual deployment, appears to be a prudent course of action that balances the many factors involved in this issue," he said.

Election issue

The failure of a test on the system in July, when one missile failed to intercept another over the Pacific Ocean, may have influenced Mr Clinton's decision.

The missile defence plan is likely to become an election issue in this autumn's race for the White House.

Republican presidential candidate George W Bush has already pledged to cut the number of nuclear missiles and press ahead with the NMD plan.

His Democratic rival, Al Gore, has been noncommital on whether there should be an NMD system, saying he supports continued development work.

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See also:

04 Jun 00 | Europe
Hard bargaining at the Kremlin
01 Jun 00 | Europe
Clinton offers Star Wars deal
23 May 00 | Europe
Bush unveils nuclear policy
27 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
China-US: A turbulent year
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