Issue No. 31, October 1998
Rogues, Russians and Reductions: The ABM Treaty and National
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."
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
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'
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."
…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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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,
© 1998 The Acronym Institute.
Return to top of page
Return to List of Contents
Return to Acronym Main Page