Pentagon to continue developing conventional weapons after ratification of START

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told lawmakers Thursday that the United States continues to encourage Russia to join a European missile-defense system intended to counter the threat posed by Iranian missiles. He also sought to reassure Republicans that the United States would not agree to Russian efforts to limit the U.S. missile-defense capability.

"Whatever talks are going on are simply about trying to elicit their [Russian] willingness to partner with us, along with the Europeans, in terms of a regional missile defense," Gates said, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to support ratification of the recently signed U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. "But there is nothing in the approaches that have been made to the Russians that in any way, shape or form would impose any limits whatsoever on our plans."

Gates was responding to a question from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) about a press report of secret negotiations with Moscow involving missile defense.

Republican senators have voiced concerns that the new treaty limits U.S. missile defense programs, a theme repeated at other hearings as the administration works to gain GOP support to reach the 67 votes needed for ratification.

The treaty's critics on the missile defense issue have focused on three items: the preamble, which refers to a relationship between offensive and defensive weapons; anarticle that bars using current land- and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles as launchers for defensive missile interceptors; and a unilateral statement by Russia, in which it reserves the right to withdraw from the treaty if there were a quantitative and qualitative buildup of U.S. missile defenses.

At Thursday's session, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), ranking Republican on the committee, said he needs "to be confident that the treaty in no way limits the administration's ability and willingness to deploy missile defense capabilities, regardless of the statements made by the Russian government."

Gates sought to ease McCain's concern. "The Russians can say what they want. If it's not in the treaty, it's not binding on the United States," he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also appeared at the hearing, pointed out that Russia remained part of the original START agreement even after the administration of President George W. Bush withdrew from a missile-defense pact. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers the U.S. had no intention of using current ICBM launchers as part of any missile defense system, arguing that the treaty article had no impact on the program.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) called the missile-defense issue more important than the agreement on nuclear weapons because of the threats from a nuclear-armed rogue nation or terrorist group. He sought an assurance that 10 years from now, the United States would deploy a missile interceptor in the planned European system that could knock down an ICBM even if the Russians objected.

Gates assured Chambliss that he would recommend deploying the interceptor, "especially if we're unsuccessful in stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company