Timely delay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 September, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 September, 2000, 12:00am

BY delaying deployment of America's planned missile defence system, President Bill Clinton has done the correct if unsurprising thing. His decision to pass the buck to the next president - Al Gore or George W. Bush - for the most part removes the subject from the US election campaign and recognises that many basic scientific problems remain unsolved.

Two of three test firings have been failures. Yet if Mr Clinton tried to meet the Pentagon's preferred schedule and have a small system operational in 2005, he would have had to order concrete poured imminently for a complex radar site on a remote Alaskan island. Instead, he pushed the timetable back a year or two, even if the system eventually does go forward.

He decided against starting early construction of a US$60-billion missile shield that might not work. Reaction around the world was mainly one of relief; 'prudent', 'rational' and 'wise' were some words used by leaders of other countries when they heard the news. Their greatest fear is that the missile defence system might initiate another costly and dangerous arms race, with China, India and Pakistan, among others, adding new weapons to ensure their rockets aren't negated by the US shield. China and Russia have been the most vocal critics, though none of America's closest European allies is enthusiastic, and some remain firmly opposed. They contend the US is trying to protect itself from random missile attacks by terrorists or so-called 'rogue' states like North Korea or Iraq by doing something that makes the world less safe for everyone else. Important segments of the Clinton administration and many in Congress agreed, which helped bring about the delay.

Add in the technical difficulties, and the decision seems even more sensible. Essentially, the shield is supposed to consist of powerful radars to detect missile firings, plus defensive rockets to propel non-nuclear warheads into the attackers long before they can reach their targets - using a bullet to hit a bullet, as is often claimed. But so far there has been no successful test intercepts, while some essential rocket engines remain uninvented. Mr Gore praised the Clinton decision, as expected. Mr Bush reaffirmed his support for the shield, and criticised the delay. But he won't gain many votes by advocating construction of a dodgy defence system few people understand, so the issue won't have much election impact.