WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Friday he intends to go ahead with plans for building a nationwide missile defense, despite Russian objections, and also cut the number of U.S. nuclear weapons.
The defense system could mean a major missile base in Alaska, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the administration hasn't made any decision on how to move forward. That includes a proposed radar installation at Shemya, he said.
In comments at the White House, Bush recalled his pledge on those subjects during the presidential campaign, and he said, ''I'm going to fulfill that campaign promise.'' He gave no details but stressed the importance of reducing U.S. nuclear forces, ''commensurate with our ability to keep the peace.''
''My point is, I want America to lead the world toward a more safe world when it comes to nuclear weaponry,'' Bush said. ''On the offensive side we can do so, and we can do so on the defensive side as well.''
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that although it was too early to discuss details of how the administration will proceed with the development of a national missile defense, ''the president has not been ambivalent about this. He intends to deploy a missile defense capability for the country.''
The Clinton administration had pursued development of such a system to protect all 50 states, but President Clinton decided late last summer that the technology was not sufficiently mature to make a firm commitment to deploy it. Clinton also said more time was needed to address the strong objections of Russia and China, as well as the misgivings of many of America's European allies.
During the campaign Bush said that if elected he would make missile defense a top priority and deploy it even if it meant abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that prohibits nationwide missile defenses.
In Moscow on Friday, President Vladimir Putin spoke out against missile defenses and said Russia expects the United States to adhere to the ABM treaty. Putin has warned that Russia will scrap all existing arms control agreements if Washington backs out of the treaty. He did not repeat that warning Friday, but said ''Russia is actively working with our partners'' and ''counts on joint work'' to preserve the ABM treaty.
Rumsfeld, in his Pentagon news conference, was asked about his comment at his Senate confirmation hearing that the ABM treaty is ''ancient history,'' implying that it is no longer relevant.
''It was a long time ago that that treaty was fashioned,'' he said, noting that it predated his first term as defense secretary in 1975-77.
''We're in a very different world,'' he said. ''The Soviet Union's gone. The principal threats facing the United States are not the fear of a strategic nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. And it strikes me that we should accept the treaty in that sense. And I personally believe it ought not to inhibit a country, a president, an administration, a nation, from fashioning offensive and defensive capabilities that will provide for our security in a notably different national security environment.''
Asked whether a decision would be made within the next few months on deploying such a system, Rumsfeld said, ''I don't want to put a time limit on myself.''
The next flight test of the missile interceptor under development is expected this spring, although no firm date has been set.
Rumsfeld said he supported Bush's view that a national missile defense is needed to deter missile attack.
''(Bush) has concluded that it is not in our country's interests to perpetuate vulnerability'' to such attacks or threats of attack, Rumsfeld said. ''And the Russians know -- they have to know -- that the kinds of capabilities that are being discussed are not capabilities that threaten them in any way.''
The Russian government is concerned that while an initial U.S. missile defense system would be too thin to neutralize Russia's nuclear forces, it could form the basis for a more robust system later.
China, which has a much smaller nuclear missile force than Russia, is equally concerned. European countries have raised questions about the U.S. plan and want to preserve the ABM treaty.
Rumsfeld said he planned to attend a European security conference Feb. 3 in Munich, Germany, where he will meet with many of his counterparts for the first time to discuss missile defense and other issues.
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