Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 31, October 1998

Rogues, Russians and Reductions: The ABM Treaty and National Missile Defenses
By Jack Mendelsohn


The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which limits to 100 the number of interceptors the US or Russia may deploy to defend against a long-range missile attack, is once again in serious trouble. The treaty is under severe attack by those who seek to protect the United States from a potential (but highly unlikely) attack by "rogue" States, by others who fear the treaty will unnecessarily restrict the ability of the US to develop and deploy a national missile defense (NMD) system, and by some who question the legality of the treaty, originally negotiated in 1972 by the US and the Soviet Union, in light of the collapse of the USSR. This paper points out that the main arguments deployed against the treaty are ill-founded, misguided and disingenuous, and warns that if the attack on the treaty succeeds, the effect - very quickly - will be to gravely diminish the prospect of further reductions in nuclear forces. The treaty is as relevant as ever, and its need for staunch defenders has never been greater.

The Attack on the ABM Treaty

The latest multiple-pronged attack on the ABM treaty began in 1995 with the advent of the Republican-controlled Congress and was reinvigorated in July 1998 with the release of the Rumsfeld report. (1) Prepared by a commission headed by a former Secretary of Defense, the report claims that the US may have "little or no warning" before North Korea, Iran or Iraq deploy long-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs with ranges beyond 5,500 kms) capable of reaching US territory. These countries "would be able to inflict major destruction on the US within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq)."

In addition, the Rumsfeld Commission concluded that "the warning times the US can expect of new, threatening ballistic missile deployments are being reduced. Under some plausible scenarios - including re-basing [Editor's note: using another nation's territory] or transfer of operational missiles, sea- and air-launch options, shortened development programs that might include testing in a third country, or some combination of these - the US might well have little or no warning before operational deployment." (Emphasis added.)

The Rumsfeld Commission had been mandated by the Congress after the US intelligence community continued to argue that any rogue State ICBM threat to the nation was at least a decade and perhaps 15 years away. To its credit, immediately after the report was released, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reaffirmed its earlier estimate that judged "it unlikely, despite the excessive transfer of theater missile technology, that other countries [except Russia and China and possibly North Korea (2)] will develop, produce, and deploy an ICBM capable of reaching any part of the United States over the next decade." (3)

The Administration's Qualified Commitment to the Treaty

On 2 October, US Deputy Secretary of Defense, John Hamre, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the US ballistic missile defense program (4), indicated that the US will not hesitate to overthrow the ABM treaty in response to a rogue threat. Hamre noted that "if we determined that deployment of an NMD system would require changes to the [ABM] treaty, we would seek agreement on such changes. If, contrary to our expectations, we were not able to reach agreement in the necessary time frame, then our recourse would be to withdraw from the treaty because of supreme national interests, which the treaty permits on six months' notice."

Hamre went on to stress that "Secretary [of Defense William] Cohen has authorized me to be very clear on this point. If we deploy in response to an emerging rogue threat, and if that deployment requires changes to the ABM treaty, we will engage Russia promptly on appropriate modifications. But we will not permit protracted negotiations to delay our deployment and prolong a risk to our people." (Emphasis added.)

At the same hearing, however, General Joseph W. Ralston, USAF, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made it clear that "the ABM treaty does not at this time hinder development of our national missile defense programs. All currently planned NMD tests are treaty compliant and still allow us to assess the full performance capability of the developmental systems." He did warn, however, that "the ABM treaty may have to be modified to support an NMD deployment that best meets operational requirements."

Rewriting International Law...

Attacking the ABM treaty on yet another front, on 5 October Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms and six other conservative Senators sent a letter to President Clinton. (5) In it they claim that they have "no choice but to conclude that the ABM treaty did not survive the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it is our position that the ABM treaty has lapsed and is of no force and effect unless the Senate approves the MOU [Editor's note: the Memorandum of Understanding signed in September 1997 multilateralizing the ABM treaty], or some similar agreement, to revive the treaty."

Reminiscent of the discredited effort by the Reagan Administration to "reinterpret" the ABM treaty, the Senators' claim of treaty nullification is without basis in customary international law. Without treaty amendment or Senate vote, the international community accepted Russia as a successor State to the Soviet Union on the UN Security Council and in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (as well as welcoming its assumption of the international debts of the Soviet Union). Moreover, Russia explicitly assumed the arms control obligations of the Soviet Union in January 1992 when President Yeltsin declared that:

"Russia regards itself as the legal successor to the USSR in the field of responsibility for fulfilling international obligations. We confirm all obligations under bilateral and multi-lateral agreements in the field of arms limitations and disarmament which were signed by the Soviet Union and are in effect at present." (6)

…And Legislating Strategy

In addition to all this, the US Congress is attempting to pass legislation which would require NMD deployment. The Senate has twice narrowly defeated (59-41) a motion of closure - 60 votes would have shut off debate and allowed a vote - on a bill introduced by Senator Thad Cochran (Republican - Mississippi). Cochran's bill would require the US "to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective national missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the US against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized or deliberate)." (Emphasis added.) At the same time, in the House of Representatives a one-sentence bill, introduced by representative Curt Weldon (Republican - Pennsylvania) with over 60 co-sponsors on 5 August, would make it "the policy of the US to deploy a national missile defense."

The Clinton Administration - which has recognized that the ABM treaty remains linked, at least in Russian minds, to the continuation of the strategic arms reduction process - has tried to accommodate these conflicting pressures by adopting a so-called "3+3" policy for NMD. This policy calls for continued research and development (R&D) on NMD systems until 2000, at which time, if the threat warrants, a decision could be made to deploy with the expectation that an NMD system would begin operation three years later (i.e., in 2003). If, however, the threat assessment in the year 2000 does not justify a decision to deploy, then R&D would continue, along with the capability to deploy within three years, until the strategic situation required a deployment decision.

The Perennial NMD Debate

The debate over whether or not to deploy national missile defenses has been raging in the US for more than three decades. (7) In the 1970's, the rationale for NMD was a potential Chinese threat against which the US actually deployed - briefly - 100 nuclear-tipped Spartan and Sprint interceptors. The "Safeguard" system, as it was called, was clearly ineffective, vulnerable and expensive and was operational for less than a year.

In the 1980's, the rationale for NMD was a massive and growing Soviet threat which would be rendered "impotent and obsolete" - President Reagan's words - by new and exotic technologies such as x-ray lasers, rail guns and "death ray" particle beams. These technologies, and the strategic concept underlying the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), proved to be impractical, unfeasible, unworkable, unaffordable and unattainable, and by 1990 the program began to be phased down.

In the 1990's, the threat has been recast from a large-scale nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union/Russia or possibly China, to a small-scale threat from a rogue State or from an unauthorized or accidental launch by a major nuclear power. The hardware response, for its part, has abandoned nuclear and exotic technologies in favor of "hit-to-kill" systems (which would collide with incoming warheads) although their development is proving a challenge. (8)

Why, Then, Do We Still Have the ABM Treaty?

In light of three decades of criticism, the presence of a large nuclear arsenal in Russia and a smaller one in China, and over $100 billion dollars in R&D costs on strategic missile defense (9), why is the ABM treaty still in place? Isn't it immoral to leave the nation unprotected? Isn't it counter-intuitive not to defend the nation? And isn't it an open invitation to a potential adversary not to deploy defenses against a long-range missile attack?

The answer to those questions - and the reason why the ABM treaty was originally devised - lies in the nature of the strategic environment created by the nuclear age. As a result of the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons and the relative ease and speed of their delivery, the threat of devastating retaliation - deterrence - has become the basis for the strategic relationship between potential nuclear-capable adversaries.

For better or worse, deterrence by retaliation is with us for the foreseeable future, not subject to legislation or choice. It is, as Hans Bethe once said, "not a policy or a doctrine, but a fact of life."(10) In a world of deterrence, to maintain a stable relationship requires that neither side be capable of disarming the other and that both sides retain confidence in the survivability of their retaliatory forces. A highly capable national ballistic missile defense system can undercut confidence in the effectiveness of retaliatory forces. Loss of confidence in the ability to deter will, in turn, provoke compensating offensive deployments and/or interfere with the efforts to shrink strategic offensive arsenals.

The US and Russia agreed to the ABM treaty to forestall this predictable interaction between opposing offensive and defensive forces. The substantial force reductions negotiated in START I and II and projected for START III, which will reduce the threat facing the US and Russia from some 11,000 deployed warheads to 6,000, 3,500 and then 2,500 (or lower), were obtained because of the ABM treaty and the (virtual) absence of strategic ballistic missile defenses. Moscow has made it abundantly and consistently clear that it steadfastly opposes any large-scale NMD deployment and continues to consider the ABM treaty to be the key to further strategic nuclear arms reductions.

One final note on deterrence, the ABM treaty, and nuclear force reductions: In order to escape this offense/defense spiral and to transition to a non-deterrent world, the US-Russian political relationship would have to evolve from a potentially adversarial one to a truly cooperative one. Presumably, the US would not be concerned by a British national missile defense because there is nothing in the current or future relationship that would require the US to "deter" the UK. Until the US has comparable confidence in its relationship with Russia, the abandonment of the ABM treaty and the introduction of NMD would be more provocative than protective.

It's the Rogue States, Stupid!

Advocates for a national missile defense have revised their rationale and now argue that the US must be protected against a limited attack by a rogue State (and occasionally, but less fervently, they express concern about an accidental or unauthorized launch (11)). At present, however, there is no "rogue" nation ballistic missile threat to the US and, the Rumsfeld report notwithstanding, a low probability that any will emerge in the next 10 to 15 years. In fact, of the 20-odd developing States possessing ballistic missiles, only three - India, Israel and North Korea - have actually produced or flight-tested missiles with ranges of more than 1,500 kms.

Even if a "rogue" State did possess the combination of technical expertise, political will and irresponsible leadership required to consider an attack on the US, is it reasonable to assume that they would employ long-range ballistic missiles to carry it out? Given that ICBMs are expensive and technically difficult to design, develop, deploy and/or conceal, these complex systems would be the least likely method a rogue State would choose to attack or threaten the US. Ships, aircraft or - as we have seen in the attacks on the New York World Trade Center, the Oklahoma Federal Office Building and US embassies abroad - a rented van is a much more convenient and realistic delivery vehicle.

Moreover, a rogue State's ballistic missile tests, as well as any actual launches against the US, would be readily and routinely detected by round-the-clock US satellite surveillance. Only if a "rogue" State actually wanted the US to be able to determine precisely the origin of the attack, and only if it wanted to be sure it would suffer an immediate and devastating response, would it make an ICBM the weapon of choice for a strike against the US. Finally, if a rogue State were technologically sophisticated enough to develop and deploy an ICBM with a nuclear (or, perhaps, biological) warhead, then it would surely be clever enough to devise penetration aids to allow it to defeat a missile defense system.

What's the Bottom Line?

The ABM treaty plays a key role in maintaining strategic stability with Russia (as the US joint chiefs of staff have testified before Congress) and in facilitating the reduction of strategic nuclear forces. Moreover, its restrictions on NMD become even more critical as overall force levels decrease. Thus, its importance is likely to persist for as long as the strategic relationship between the US and Russia remains potentially adversarial and posited on retaliatory deterrence.

For these reasons, as well as because no "rogue" nation ICBM threat exists (or is likely to eventuate in the next decade, if ever), it would be the height of strategic folly for the US to trash the ABM treaty on the pretext of protecting the nation against a non-existent threat. The real threat to the US - the bottom line, as it were - is that, if this decade's attack on the ABM treaty succeeds, by the millenium the entire nuclear arms reduction process may have fallen victim to an unjustifiable desire to deploy an extensive, expensive and needless national missile defense.

Notes and References

1. Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, 15 July, 1998.

2. The CIA judges that the North Korean Taepo Dong-2 will have a range of between 4,000 and 6,000 km and could reach mainland Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands.

3. Declassified summary of the intelligence community's "1998 Report on the Ballistic Missile Threat," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 September, 1998.

4. Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Ballistic Missile Defense, 2 October, 1998.

5. Letter to the President, 5 October, 1998, signed by Senators Lott, Helms, Nickles, Mack, Craig, Coverdale, Kyl and Smith.

6. TASS Newswire, 29 January 1992. Cited in "The Arms Control Obligations of the former Soviet Union," George Bunn and John B. Rhinelander, Virginia Journal of International Law, Winter, 1993.

7. For a brief but useful discussion of the history and costs of US anti-ballistic missile defense programs, see Atomic Audit, edited by Stephen I. Schwartz, Brookings Institution Press, 1998, pp. 284-298.

8. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), an investigative arm of the US Congress, "[a]ny decision in fiscal year 2000 to deploy an NMD system by 2003 would involve high technical risk because the associated compressed schedule will permit only limited testing of the system." Report to Congressional Requesters on National Missile Defense: Even with Increased Funding Technical and Schedule Risks are High, GAO, June 1998, p. 19.

9. See Atomic Audit for a cost survey.

10. Scientific American, October, 1984.

11. Accidental or unauthorized launches are extremely unlikely to occur. Chinese warheads are not mated to their missiles and, in the case of Russia, US intelligence and the StratCom Commander General Habiger believe that their control mechanisms are very good. In any case, ballistic missile defenses are not the appropriate response to the threat of a potential failure in command and control arrangements. Operational arms control measures, such as reduced alert rates, separating warheads from delivery systems, and improved electronic locks (PALS) are a much more effective and direct way of dealing with this concern.

Jack Mendelsohn, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and former Deputy Director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., is currently John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to List of Contents

Return to Acronym Main Page