U.S. missile defense chief: START won't limit plans

WASHINGTON Wed Jun 16, 2010 3:33pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chief of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency assured U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday that the new treaty with Moscow cutting nuclear arms does not limit Washington's missile defense plans, as the Obama administration sought to convince treaty skeptics in Congress.

Winning over Republicans who are among the most stalwart supporters of U.S. missile defense programs is critical to getting Senate approval of the new START treaty that President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in April.

A Senate supermajority of 67 votes is needed for ratification and the Obama administration hopes for a vote this year.

"There are no limitations in the treaty that affect our plans for developing missile defense," Lieutenant General Patrick O'Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The pact reduces the strategic nuclear arsenals of both countries. Obama administration officials repeatedly have declared it does not cut defensive systems that Washington is developing with the goal of protecting against a small number of missiles that might be fired by "rogue" states such as North Korea or Iran.

But some Republicans already skeptical of Obama's attempts to "reset" relations with Russia and his revamping last year of the Bush administration's missile defense program, keep looking for possible concessions his administration may be making to Moscow.

They have pointed to a clause in the new START that prohibits the conversion of long-range missile launchers into missile defense launchers. Republican Senator James Risch asked Wednesday whether this is not a constraint.

O'Reilly replied that the clause was nothing to worry about because the actions it prohibits were not planned anyway.

While the United States did five such launcher conversions back in 2002, no more were planned, he said. This was because officials had learned it is cheaper to build launchers, and easier to maintain them, than converting old ones.

"The options that are prohibited would be ones that we would not choose," O'Reilly said.

The new START pact commits the two countries with 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons to significant cuts in their strategic arsenals, although still leaving them with more than enough firepower to annihilate each other.

O'Reilly's appearance with two other Pentagon officials came a day after the treaty's chief U.S. negotiator told lawmakers that there were no secret deals to limit missile defense made with Moscow during talks on the pact.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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