WASHINGTON (AP) -- The easing of tensions with North Korea does not diminish the need for a U.S. missile defense system, which should remain a priority ''over and above'' other military needs, the Air Force chief of staff said Wednesday.
Gen. Michael Ryan acknowledged concern at the Pentagon about the unknown cost of a national missile defense system but said U.S. military leaders all support it if it proves feasible. Military officials have said they eventually want to base 100 interceptor missiles in Interior Alaska and an X-band radar system to support the missile defense system on Shemya Island in the Aleutians.
Ryan spoke to a defense writers group just after North Korea pledged to continue its moratorium on testing of long-range missiles and proposed a joint meeting of North and South Korean Red Cross organizations. The moves were a follow-up to a summit between the two countries' top leaders during the weekend, and to the U.S. lifting some economic sanctions against North Korea on Wednesday.
North Korean guarantees and warming relations on the Korean peninsula do not undercut the need for a U.S. national missile defense system, Ryan said. He said other potential troublemaking states could gain the ability to hit U.S. territory in 20 years.
The Pentagon has announced the next $100 million test of the system for July 7 with a planned interception of a missile over the Pacific Ocean. Even if it fails, Defense Secretary William Cohen has said he might recommend development of a system. President Clinton is expected to decide before leaving office whether to go ahead.
The latest Pentagon cost estimate for the system's 100 interceptors is $36 billion over 20 years, but estimates keep changing, with full extent of the detection and interception system not yet decided.
Ryan said that while military leaders are concerned about the unknown cost of the system to protect the 50 states against a limited nuclear missile attack, he believes it will not affect already tight military budgets.
''We're hoping it's going to be over and above'' projected military defense needs, he said. But he said there is no commitment that it will remain that way.
He said the system is needed despite development on the Korean Peninsula because North Korea is not the only nation that could have the capacity in the next 20 years to launch a nuclear missile against U.S. territory.
On other issues, Ryan said:
--The Air Force will never have enough equipment to conduct two major theater wars at the same time. ''We can't afford to go there,'' he said.
--Underfunding has forced the military to put off needed replacement of facilities at bases around the world.
--On whether the modern U.S. military is willing to enter any conflict that might lead to American casualties, he said there is no machismo in the military that says soldiers need to face undue danger, but Air Force fliers risk their lives every day enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq.
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