WASHINGTON (AP) -- In his first public comments since President Clinton's decision last week to put off construction of a national missile defense, the Pentagon's missile defense chief told a House panel on Friday there is ''no technical reason'' that an effective defense against missiles could not be built.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said his office provided technical information about the project's status and prospects as part of the Pentagon's input to Clinton's decision, but it made no recommendation on whether to proceed or to defer deployment.
The Pentagon has said Alaska is the likely site of a national missile defense system, should one be built. Fort Greely near Delta Junction and Clear Air Station south of Nenana are the leading contenders.
In addition, an early-warning radar system would be built at a former Air Force base on Shemya Island. Last week Clinton declined to authorize the Pentagon to award contracts to begin building the radar.
Defense Secretary William Cohen recommended that Clinton give the go-ahead to begin deployment of a national missile defense in hopes that it could be ready for use by 2007 or perhaps a little earlier.
Clinton, however, announced last Friday that he would leave a deployment decision to his successor because he was not convinced the technology is at hand to build a reliable anti-missile shield.
''We should not move forward until we have absolute confidence that the system will work,'' Clinton said.
Clinton said there was an emerging threat of long-range missile attack on the United States, but he did not believe the benefits of extra security from a missile shield would outweigh diplomatic difficulties with countries like Russia and China, which oppose the project.
Kadish, in his appearance before the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security, did not comment directly on his view of Clinton's decision. But in his written testimony he made clear that he believes some critics of national missile defense are underestimating the Pentagon's technical prowess.
''There is no technical reason at this point, validated by independent review teams, indicating that we could not develop an effective NMD system,'' Kadish said, using the acronym for national missile defense.
The three-star general addressed one of the major criticisms of the system now under development -- namely, that it cannot cope with the kinds of decoys and other countermeasures that hostile nations might use to overcome it.
''Given our extensive toolbox and the 40 years of experience the United States has with offensive and defensive weapon systems, we know how to play the countermeasures/counter-countermeasures game,'' Kadish said. ''And we know how to win.''
Kadish said that despite setbacks and delays in the development and testing of a national missile defense, 93 percent of the system's ''critical engagement functions'' have been demonstrated to work properly.
''We had planned to be at about 94 percent at this stage, so we are very nearly where we expected to be,'' he said.
The last two major tests, in which prototype interceptor rockets failed to hit their target in space, were disappointments, Kadish said, but they are not evidence of insurmountable technological barriers.
''The problems are fixable,'' he said.
The next test was scheduled for November, but the Pentagon said earlier this week that it probably would be delayed until January because analysis of the results from July's failed test are not yet complete.
In an appearance before the same House panel Friday, the Pentagon's head watchdog on weapons testing submitted a schedule chart, dated September 2000, which said the next test would not happen until March 2001.
Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation, told the panel that national missile defense tests need to be made more realistic in order to show that the system would work reliably.
''Such a capability is yet to be shown to be practicable for NMD,'' Coyle said, adding later in response to questions that by ''practicable'' he meant ''that you could count on it'' in an actual missile attack.
On the Net:
Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization: http://www.acq.osd.mil/bmdo/bmdolink/html/
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