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US pushes to convert some nuclear missiles to conventional ones

Opponents see risk of response in error

FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made his strongest public case yesterday for a plan, opposed by some in Congress and by Russia, to convert some of the Navy's nuclear long-range missiles to a conventional role for potential use against terrorist targets anywhere in the world.

Opponents of the plan argue that it could create a situation in which a non-nuclear US Trident missile, launched from a submarine, would be mistaken for a nuclear launch and risk the possibility of a retaliatory nuclear strike.

Rumsfeld said he thought little of that argument. He said the Pentagon would be ``fully transparent" with Moscow about any conversion of strategic missiles, so that there was no room for miscalculation.

``There are only a few countries that would have the ability to do anything about it -- regardless of which type of weapon it was," he said, alluding to the small number of countries possessing nuclear missiles capable of reaching US territory: Russia, China, and possibly North Korea.

Besides, he added, ``everyone in the world would know" that the US missile was not nuclear ``after it hit within 30 minutes" of launch.

``Or 10 minutes," interjected Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister who discussed the subject at a joint news conference with Rumsfeld. The two men held talks at a Fairbanks lodge, had lunch together, and then attended a ceremony dedicating a memorial to US-Soviet military cooperation during World War II.

By noting that a long-range missile might hit its target in as little as 10 minutes from launch, Ivanov appeared to be emphasizing the short time frame in which a decision on retaliating would have to be made.

At an otherwise harmonious news conference, Rumsfeld voiced the Bush administration's rationale for the plan to put conventional warheads on some Trident missiles aboard submarines, and he said Moscow should embrace the idea.

``It would be a good thing if, five, 10, or 15 years from now both of our countries had that additional weapon available ``in case it might be needed in an unusual circumstance." Rumsfeld's remarks were in response to a question from a Russian reporter who asked him to comment on the idea of conversion.

Ivanov, however, made clear that his government opposes the idea.

`` These are preliminary plans, and for sure these US plans raise Russian concerns," Ivanov said.

The Russian defense chief said he understands that Rumsfeld sees this prospective weapon as a way of maximizing US options for ``preventive strikes," meaning attacks against terrorist targets that are launched not in response to a terrorist act but in order to destroy a terrorist weapon before it can be used.

``There are different solutions" to that problem, Ivanov said. He mentioned the use of cruise missiles, which traditionally carry conventional warheads and would not be mistaken for a possible nuclear strike.

Ivanov said his government was willing to discuss the matter with US officials.

The two defense chiefs also discussed Russia's objections to economic sanctions imposed earlier this month by the State Department on two Russian arms companies for their dealings with Iran. The companies -- Rosoboronexport and Sukhoi -- were among seven companies Washington said violated a US law known as the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000. The law is aimed at preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction to Tehran.

Rumsfeld said Moscow and Washington disagree over the facts in the case and that he agreed to have the matter reconsidered.

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