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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 35, March 1999

US Missile Defence Plans

Editor's note: On 18 March, the Senate passed legislation (by 97 votes to 3) mandating the United States to deploy a national missile defence (NMD) system as soon as technically feasible, subject to adequate funding authorization and continued participation in the strategic arms reduction (START) process with Russia. Once these qualifications were placed on the legislation, President Clinton announced his support for the measure. On 19 March, the House of Representatives passed (317-105) legislation simply mandating the deployment of an NMD system. See Documents and Sources in this issue, and next issue's News Review, for details and reaction.

The US Administration has said it expects to make a decision on NMD deployment by June 2000 (see issue No. 33, pp.40-42). President Clinton's main concern is that any NMD programme proceed either within the agreed limits of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, or lead to a negotiated amendment of certain of those limits. Many Republican proponents of early deployment of an NMD system are urging the President simply to declare the entire Treaty obsolete and incompatible with America's requirement to defend itself against missile attack not by Russia but by 'rogue States'. On 5 March, Clinton set out his position once more: "I think if we believe that the technology might be there, we owe it to ourselves and to all of our allies to try to develop that [NMD system]... [But] I have no intention of supporting or initiating a unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty. I will not do that."

Negotiating changes to the Treaty is unlikely to prove easy. On 18 February, the Itar-Tass news agency quoted a senior Defence Ministry official, Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, as stating that Russia has no plans to hold "talks with the USA on changing" the Treaty, "comes out against changes in The Treaty," and sees "no necessity" in any discussions on the matter.

On 8 March, Reuters quoted an assessment of the NMD issue given to reporters and diplomats in Ottawa by Canada's Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy. Axworthy observed: "The concern that we would have is to what extent would such a system abrogate the ABM Treaty or some of the other disarmament/arms control treaties that may be there... If on the other hand it provides an effective protection against missile attacks from untoward States - rogue States I guess they're now called - and others, then it has to be looked at." Also on 8 March, Daniel Bon, Director-General of Policy Planning in the Canadian Defence Ministry, insisted that "certainly we wouldn't be looking at anything that isn't ABM-compliant." Bon added that Canada regarded some US assessments of the threat posed to North America by rogue States, particularly North Korea, with some wariness: "Why would North Korea want to hit Vancouver? In the United States there is a tendency to equate capability with intent, or capability with likelihood."

In late February, Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles, head of the Defense Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), told the House Armed Services Committee that the road to a deployable NMD system was unlikely to be straightforward:

"I am confident that with the talented government-industry team we have now we can develop a working system that will be very effective... But I fear that if we don't watch the costs today, we won't be able to provide the quantities of those systems we'll need. ... One of the largest challenges I have is to ensure that the programmes are affordable. However, we have experienced unacceptable cost growth and schedule slips in some of our programmes that threaten the success and, more importantly, adequate quantities of these systems."

On 15 March, the US successfully conducted a test of its Patriot PAC-3 interceptor missile at its White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The missile - which the BMDO now hopes to see enter service in 2001, a year later than originally envisaged - is designed to protect troops in battlefield situations against both short- and medium-range missiles.

Reports: Russia not engaged in talks with USA on ABM Treaty - official, Itar-Tass, 18 February; PAC-3 deployment date slips to 2001, Armed Forces Newswire Service, 1 March; Lyles says NMD, TMD within reach, but cost is concern, Defense Daily, 2 March; Clinton vows not to abrogate ABM Treaty, Reuters, 5 March; Canada cautiously eyes US missile shield plan, Reuters, 8 March; US successfully tests 'hit-to-kill' missile, Reuters, 15 March; ABM intercepts target missile, Associated Press, 16 March.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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