WASHINGTON (AP) -- The head of a Pentagon-appointed panel of experts told Congress on Wednesday that he has no reservations about the soundness of the technology behind the current plan for a limited national missile defense.
Retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch said his main concern remains whether a 2005 timetable can be met for putting in place the first 20 interceptor missiles in Alaska.
''There is a lot of work to be done,'' Welch told the House Armed Services Committee.
Military officials have said they eventually want to base 100 interceptor missiles in Alaska's Interior and an X-band radar system to support the missile defense system on Shemya Island in the Western Aleutians.
President Clinton is expected to decide this fall whether to begin construction of the missile shield system.
At a White House news conference, Clinton said he still had not made up his mind, ''but I will do so ... over the next several weeks.'' Clinton said he has tried to say as little as possible about the decision and wants to ''keep our options open.''
Clinton also praised North Korea for seeking to normalize relations with South Korea -- but suggested it was not a reason to back away from the missile shield program, designed to protect against attacks from unpredictable nations like North Korea.
''They still have a missile program. And so it's still something that the United States has to be mindful of and to prepare and to deal with and ... to keep up with,'' Clinton said.
A crucial U.S. test flight is scheduled for next week in the South Pacific.
In the congressional testimony, Welch as well as current Pentagon officials presented a generally upbeat assessment of progress on the missile shield program.
''We are continuing with the schedule we have now, based on both his (Welch's) assessment and our own, that we have the ability to meet the 2005 date if things go according to plan,'' said Jacques Gansler, the Pentagon's top technology official.
''Those who charge that the system cannot be technologically feasible simply do not have all the information they need to make such a conclusion,'' Gansler said.
The CIA has suggested that some unpredictable emerging nuclear powers, such as North Korea, may have ballistic missiles in place capable of reaching the continental United States by 2005.
Critics of the missile defense system have used the Welch panel's report to bolster their arguments that a decision on deployment should be put off at least until the next administration.
But Welch, in his first public comments on the matter, suggested that his report -- most of which remains classified -- had been mischaracterized by some on both sides of the issue. ''It's a reasonably balanced report,'' he said.
''We believe capable technical abilities are in hand. We say that without caveats,'' he said.
But, as to meeting the 2005 schedule, ''there is a lot of risk,'' he added. Defense Secretary William Cohen and other Pentagon officials have expressed the same concern.
Rep. Floyd Spence, R-S.C., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, asserted that the missile defense project would be further along now if the Clinton administration hadn't been so devoted to upholding the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow.
Spence called the ABM Treaty ''a Cold War relic entered into with a country that doesn't exist any more.''
The Pentagon's optimistic assessment came amid increasing calls for Clinton to leave the decision to the next president.
Texas Gov. George Bush, the GOP contender, has proposed an even larger-scale system than the administration is contemplating.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., a strong missile defense advocate, recently told reporters he wouldn't be that upset if Clinton left the decision to his successor.
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he may introduce a resolution in the Senate calling for Clinton to leave the decision to whomever wins November's election, whether it's Bush or Democratic contender Al Gore.
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