Washington — President Bush ordered the Pentagon on Friday to study options for a national missile defense system and, at the same time, requested a review of the nation's strategic forces that could lead to unilateral cuts in nuclear arms.
The directive underscores Bush's certainty about two goals reducing nuclear arms and building a missile shield while pointing to the deep uncertainty and even disagreement within his administration about how they should be achieved.
Over the next six months, the Pentagon will study the options for building the massive and expensive apparatus intended to shoot down a missile aimed at the United States. At issue is whether the system will be limited to handling a small-scale attack or broadened to protect against many incoming missiles. The study will also examine whether territories beyond the United States, possibly to include Europe, might come under a protective umbrella.
Bush also is making good on his campaign promise to have the Pentagon review the nation's nuclear deterrent force in hopes that he can order dramatic and possibly unilateral cuts in the number of nuclear missiles in America's arsenal.
Linking nuclear arms cuts and construction of a national missile defense is an effort by Bush to please two opposed constituencies: liberals and arms control advocates who want to see the nuclear arsenal trimmed, and conservatives and defense hawks who fear the United States may become vulnerable to missile attack by small adversary states such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
At the State Department, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the missile defense review, due to be completed this summer, will give the administration time to consult with allies and key countries such as China and Russia about the U.S. plan.
European allies have expressed deep reservations about the scheme, viewing it as potentially destabilizing to relations among the three major nuclear powers. China and Russia regard the missile defense effort with suspicion, accusing Washington of trying to negate the deterrent capability of their nuclear forces.
Bush and Powell have spoken about the need for humility as they pursue U.S. foreign policy interests. On missile defense, however, their stance has been that the United States is moving ahead with this plan; foreign powers need to understand that and find a way to accept it.
"I don't consider it as being an arrogant position or one where we are trying to force anything on the rest of the world," Powell said Friday. "We're trying to convey the power of our position to the rest of the world and at the same time hear from them, hear from our European allies, hear from China and Russia particularly, to see if we can convince them that there is a cooperative way to approach this."
Bush's National Security Council, headed by top adviser Condoleezza Rice, prepared three directives for the president's signature, expected as soon as this weekend.
One orders a top-to-bottom review of the nation's defense budget and force levels; the second directs Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to commission a study of national missile defense and the U.S. nuclear arsenal; the third study would examine the quality of life in the military and ways to improve recruitment and retention of service members and increase morale.
The Bush administration is concerned about the skepticism in Europe toward the missile defense idea. Powell announced that he plans to travel to Brussels at the end of the month for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, where the subject of missile defense is sure to come up.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats are gearing up for a legislative battle over the administration's determination to develop a missile defense system.
At a hearing this week on worldwide threats to the United States, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, read from an unclassified CIA intelligence estimate that predicted North Korea, Iran and Iraq "are unlikely to eliminate their long-range missile programs because of (the U.S.) national missile defense and are likely to develop counter-measures" that could defeat any defensive scheme.
Levin asked CIA Director George Tenet to report back on the likelihood that these countries, if they do develop long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States, will also be able to develop the kind of technology that could thwart any effort to shoot warheads out of the sky.
The Clinton administration left office having presided over a rocky test program in which a prototype missile interceptor succeeded only once in several tries at intercepting an incoming warhead. Bush, meanwhile, is considering dramatically changing the blueprint for missile defense as laid out by Clinton's Pentagon.
The president's directive to Rumsfeld also calls for study of possible sea-based interceptor systems that could be stationed off the shores of potential enemies such as North Korea or Iraq. These "boost-phase" interceptors would be designed to shoot down missiles moments after launch.
If the administration proposes protecting all of North America and Europe with a missile shield, the Pentagon will almost certainly have to develop some sort of space-based interceptor technology, which could dramatically increase the cost of a missile system.
The immediate concern among both administration officials and critics of missile defense is the reaction on the ground.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said he perceives no interest among European allies in being included in a missile defense plan.
The CIA has already concluded that China is likely to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal by as much as tenfold, from 20 single-warhead missiles to 200 such missiles, if the United States goes ahead with the missile defense plan.
In Senate testimony, Powell took a different tack. He said China is going to expand its arsenal regardless, and once it does, the Chinese nuclear threat will be invulnerable to the limited U.S. system.
The limited nature of the defensive shield is supposed to be a key selling point: Russia and China will be able to be persuaded not to oppose the plan because their nuclear arsenals won't be affected.
But officials in Moscow and Beijing are skeptical that a U.S. defensive shield, once built, won't be expanded to the point where it can defend against even a large-scale attack. Bush at times has suggested that he considers China a threat that should be addressed by a missile shield.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is worried that Chinese nuclear expansion could spark an Asian arms race.
"I'm willing to bet you my seat that if China makes a decision to dramatically increase nuclear arms it will only be a matter of time before Japan goes nuclear," Biden said.