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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 42, December 1999

Does NMD Stand For "No More Disarmament" As Well As "National Missile Defence"?
By George Bunn


The United States is conducting research with the goal of building a limited national missile defence (NMD) to protect its entire territory from possible attack by a small number of long-range missiles from North Korea, Iraq or Iran. All these countries are reported to have missile programmes, nuclear reactors or other nuclear capability and, quite possibly, biological and/or chemical weapons. In theory, at least, nuclear, biological or chemical weapons could be carried by long-range ballistic missiles launched by these three countries and could cause many deaths in areas around their point of impact.

Such a nationwide missile shield, even though limited, would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972. That treaty now permits Russia and the United States to build a regional shield for the defence of part of its territory but contains various limitations to prevent either country from building a foundation for a nationwide defence. In the Treaty's first article, each promises "not to deploy ABM systems for a defence of the territory of its country and not to deploy a base for such a defence…"

The Clinton Administration seeks agreement from Russia to amend the ABM Treaty to permit a limited national defence. The administration argues that such a defence would not threaten the counterattack capability of Russia's thousands of nuclear warheads carried by long-range missiles. Thus, say US negotiators, Russia could maintain its deterrent against a US attack even if the US built a limited missile shield. However, the negotiations have so far produced only strong Russian refusal to amend the Treaty.

Conservative Republicans in the US Senate believe that the ABM Treaty, though negotiated by the Republican Nixon Administration, should be killed in order to permit any defence system the US wants. Indeed 16 of them, led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, wrote to President Clinton in 1998 saying the ABM Treaty was already dead because the other party to the Treaty in 1990, the Soviet Union, had died at the end of that year. They argued that Russia, the new country with most of the territory and population of the Soviet Union, did not inherit this particular Treaty from the Soviet Union. However, Russia has been accepted by the international community as the successor to other Soviet treaties dealing with international security. These include the UN Charter and its provision giving the Soviet Union a permanent seat and veto on the UN Security Council - as well as bilateral and multilateral arms control treaties.

Congressional Republicans strongly support building at least a limited national defence. In a compromise with them in April 1999, President Clinton signed into law a statute saying: "It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as technologically possible an effective [national missile defence] system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack…."

The technological feasibility required by this statute has not yet been proven. But in October 1999 there was a successful test of some elements of a missile defence system showing that, in a favourable situation, these elements could launch a missile to hit an incoming missile in space. Political momentum to build a missile shield for the entire United States is now strong.

Democrats in the Congress overwhelmingly voted for the new statute because they were not inclined to enter the 2000 election campaign appearing to oppose the defence of their constituents from "rogue state" missiles.

However, they won some concessions. The statute makes clear that it is not an authorisation for appropriations of money to build the defence system. This means that before a missile shield can be built there will have to be additional decisions by Congress and the President to pay for the cost of building a system, costs running into billions of dollars depending on the size of the system. The statute also says that a decision to deploy should take into account the impact of deployment on arms control negotiations.

The Impacts of NMD Deployment: Russian Concerns

The Russians see the statute as proof that the United States has already made a decision to build a missile shield. They do not believe the United States wants one just to deal with "rogue state" missiles. They have long faced much more realistic threats much closer to where they live. They do not accept US estimates of the North Korean threat. They point out that the North Koreans have agreed in negotiations with the US to cease their long-range missile tests. Moreover, since the origin of a North Korean missile in North Korea can be determined by US radar and other sensors, the North Koreans would not use missiles to attack America, say the Russians. They would fear overwhelming US retaliation. To avoid that if they wanted to bomb America, the North Koreans would use safer methods. They could probably find someone to drive a truck or van carrying biological weapons across the border from Canada or Mexico. Or they could explode a nuclear weapon on board an old steamer in a US harbour such as New York City. Or they could shoot a much smaller missile carrying chemical weapons from an old steamer off the US Pacific coast. In any of these cases, the North Korean source of the weapon might remain secret, and retaliation might be avoided.

Since US fears of the North Korean threat seem irrational to the Russians, they believe the US wants a missile shield to protect against Russian missiles, and that what the US is proposing is just the beginning of what will become a less limited missile shield against their missiles and those of the Chinese. And, as Russia knows, US Defence Department plans call for second and third stage additions to the initial system with many more interceptors and sensors. With these additions, the US system might well be expandable into a missile shield against Russian missiles.

Given such US plans, the Russians say they cannot reduce their missiles pursuant to the existing START agreements, or agree to further reductions. If they did, they might not have enough missiles to penetrate the new US defences in order to retaliate against a US attack. Given this, many Russians do not believe that the US goal is just a defence against rogue states. As they see it, they would have to modernise their ballistic missile fleet to assure that it can penetrate the proposed US defence. That means no negotiation of START III, no Duma ratification of START II, and, possibly, Russian breakout from START I. The US-Soviet and US-Russian missile limitation and reduction agreements of the last 30 years would be thrown out the window.

The Russians already feel threatened by NATO's expansion closer to their border to now include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. They feel threatened by NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia without authority to do so from the UN Security Council. If the Russian veto in the Security Council will not protect them from an attack by NATO, they believe they need to pay more attention to their defences. They are already planning much greater reliance on small nuclear weapons as a partial substitute for their conventional troops and weapons. Russian conventional defences are weaker than they used to be and their annual defence budget is only around three percent of that of the United States. They distrust the United States, yet do not have the funds to build either a strong conventional defence against NATO conventional forces or a strong missile defence against US missiles.

The US Senate's recent rejection of the CTBT suggests to Russia that the US may no longer be interested in arms control treaties. Remarks by Republican Senate conservatives against such treaties, and US plans for a missile shield which Russia perceives as having the effect of ending the ABM Treaty, make the same point. Indeed, US Defense Department officials have said publicly that if the Russians do not agree to amend the ABM Treaty, the United States will withdraw from it in order to build a national missile shield. Some Russians now perceive the US as their main enemy.

Chinese Concerns

The Chinese are also opposed to US missile defence deployment plans. Unlike the Russians, however, they have been very concerned about US plans for theatre missile defences (TMD), plans which got a boost from Iraqi missile launches against Israel, Saudi Arabia and US forces during the Gulf War in 1991. The Chinese are particularly concerned that the United States will build TMD for Taiwan, making that island even more inclined to insist upon its independence from mainland China. The US has not proposed such a defence to Taiwanese officials because former US President Nixon and every US administration that has followed his has agreed with mainland China that there are not two Chinas (the island of Taiwan and mainland China) but only one, and that Chinese reunification should come about peacefully through negotiations. But the US has continued to supply Taiwan with weapons, including relatively short-range Patriot anti-missile weapons that are improvements on the Patriots used in the Gulf War. Moreover, some in Taiwan have talked about building a missile defence for all of Taiwan.

As the Chinese see it, a US national missile shield could also threaten them. Like the Russians, they cannot believe the United States is building a shield just against "rogue state" missiles. They have about 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the US. Even a limited US national defence might threaten the viability of China's deterrent missiles. As they see it, they are likely to have to deploy more missile warheads if the US builds a new shield, even a first stage limited one. They have already announced that they will no longer be able to negotiate a treaty banning production of nuclear materials for weapons if the US goes ahead with its missile shield. And, given the US Senate's rejection of the CTBT, they will probably now receive less criticism for rejecting that treaty and testing nuclear weapons again if they feel the need to do so to produce smaller warheads in response to a new US missile shield.

A US missile shield may drive the Chinese and Russians together. A Russian delegation recently went to Beijing to talk about the US missile defence plans and other common problems. One product is a joint resolution for adoption by the UN General Assembly condemning NMD and calling for observance of the ABM Treaty. Using language from the treaty, this resolution calls on each party to the ABM Treaty to refrain from deployment of "anti-ballistic missile systems for a defence of the territory of its country and not to provide a basis for such a defence". Voting on this resolution shows the discomfort of many other countries about US plans.

Reactions of Other Countries

The First Committee of the UNGA approved this resolution by a vote of 80 to 4 with 68 abstentions. Opposed of course was the United States. It was joined only by Israel, Latvia and Micronesia. France voted with China and Russia for the resolution. Most other US friends and allies abstained.

The French have been the most vocal of US allies in criticising American missile defence plans. If the Russians build more ICBMs as a result of US plans, the smaller French deterrent will be perceived as even smaller in relation to Russia's deterrent. The French have long relied upon mutual deterrence rather than missile defence, and do not see the need for change to active defence. As some French see it, a US missile shield would "decouple" the US from Europe and help create a new "Fortress America" state of mind in American politicians. Americans could hide behind the shield and forget about Europe.

The Geneva Conference on Disarmament

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) has been stalled this last year in part because of US missile defence plans. A compromise negotiating agenda seemed close to agreement when the conference adjourned for the year, except for the US opposition. The compromise agenda would provide conference subcommittees to deal with key outstanding issues:

Firstly, the proposal of the US and others for a fissban, a proposed agreement to halt further production of nuclear material to make weapons, the treaty the Chinese say they can no longer negotiate if the Americans build an NMD;

Secondly, the proposal of many countries for talks in Geneva relating to further nuclear reductions and nuclear disarmament;

Thirdly, a Chinese proposal to begin talks on agreements to prevent an arms race in outer space (PAROS).

The US has opposed the second and third proposals. On nuclear disarmament, the US has been joined by the other four nuclear-weapon States (NWS) recognized in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The Five - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US - do not want to negotiate nuclear reductions with over 60 countries at the CD in Geneva. However, a compromise from a few non-NWS, which are also members of NATO, appeared likely to satisfy the US and other NWS on this second proposal.

The US appears to be alone in opposing talks on the third proposal: preventing an arms race in outer space (PAROS). The American reasons appear to be its plans for a missile shield, which includes sensors on space satellites and tests to destroy missiles in space. Missile defence using space is, of course, what China wants to prevent.

The proposed compromise for a Geneva conference work plan required agreement to all three agenda items, or none at all. So Geneva got nowhere in 1999.

The US plans for a missile shield seem to be stalling both bilateral US-Russian nuclear arms reduction talks and multilateral talks in Geneva. In addition, the plans threaten the multilateral conference to review the NPT in April-May 2000.

NPT 2000 Review Conference

At a similar conference in 1995 when the term of the 1968 NPT was extended indefinitely from its first period of 25 years, the five NPT nuclear weapon powers promised to achieve a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 1996 and to negotiate in good faith to achieve nuclear disarmament, as they had agreed to do in the NPT itself.

The US Senate CTBT vote has frustrated the first promise; the US plan for a missile shield will be seen by many as frustrating the second, for the reasons described above. What will happen at the Review Conference as a result is difficult to say, but the prospects are gloomy. Will some countries withdraw from the NPT on the grounds that the five NPT nuclear powers have violated their promises made in 1995 and in the 1968 NPT itself? Will the conference be unable to agree on any recommendations for the future?


As indicated above, the new US policy statute requires consideration of what the impact of a US missile defence system is likely to be on arms control negotiations.

Based upon news reports, many in Washington seem to have forgotten that provision of the statute. The Clinton Administration promises to announce a decision on the technical feasibility of its NMD plans by June 2000. Then, before the US election in November, President Clinton is to announce his decision on whether to build the missile shield. It is in this decision, not that scheduled for June, that the consequences for arms control of building an NMD system are to be considered.

Democrats running for office in November do not want to face the inevitable criticism from their Republican opponents that they will not support a limited defence to protect their constituents from "rogue state" missiles. The top three Republican candidates for the presidency have each announced support for NMD, as has Vice President Gore. The incumbents from both parties in the Congress have already voted overwhelmingly for the missile defence policy statute quoted at the outset. If the Defence Department announces in June that a limited shield is technologically feasible, there will be strong momentum for a decision to go ahead.

The December 1999 Russian Parliamentary elections have produced a Duma that may be more willing to approve START II even if only to put the blame back on the Americans for stalling progress in strategic arms reductions. If the Russian Parliament approves START II, the treaty must be returned to the US Senate because of an agreed amendment extending its term. This amendment became necessary for the Russians because of many delays in approval and implementation. The amendment was not before the Senate when the Senate voted and must therefore be approved by the Senate before START II formally goes into effect as a treaty. But the Senate is not likely to approve the amendment anytime soon because the Duma's approval of START II is likely to be conditioned upon the continuation of the ABM Treaty without its amendment.

Moreover, the Senate is highly unlikely to approve the START II amendment unless President Clinton also submits to the Senate the Memorandum of Understanding. in which his administration agreed that Russia had succeeded to the Soviet Union's rights and obligations under the ABM Treaty. The Senate, on present form, is likely to reject the Memorandum of Understanding because conservative Republicans consider its approval as the only thing that could give new life to the ABM Treaty, which they believe died when the Soviet Union died. Thus, the Duma's approval of START II would not end the stalemate on strategic arms reductions.

The appointment of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as acting Russian President and his likely election as president at the end of March could improve the chances for amending the ABM Treaty to permit a limited NMD. He has already urged the Duma to approve START II. In addition, some Americans have ideas for joint Russian-US defences against "rogue state" missiles that might threaten both countries, ideas that might be of interest to Russians after their elections are over. However, not knowing who will win the elections in the US in November, and therefore not knowing what the chances of approval of any agreed ABM Treaty amendment by a new president and a changed Senate might be, the Russians are not likely to make significant compromises before next November.

It may be that by that time an agreement in which North Korea promises not to test long-range missiles again will be possible. In return for concessions from the US, North Korea has already promised to keep its current moratorium on such tests in effect for the time being. If a longer-term agreement with North Korea were reached, it is possible that the American love affair with NMD might cool a little.

Unless this happens, or a compromise with the Russians can be worked out after the 2000 elections on both sides, the US is likely to go ahead with some missile defence no matter which party predominates in the American elections and no matter what the effect is upon the START treaties or upon negotiations for further reductions in strategic missiles.

Therefore, the consequences of building a US national defence shield without Russian agreement may be threefold:

Firstly, the end of the ABM Treaty and other strategic nuclear agreements of the last 30 years - with no prospects for agreements to substitute for them.

Secondly, frustration of the 1968 and 1995 US NPT promises to negotiate in good faith towards nuclear disarmament, abandonment of US arms control leadership and, perhaps, creation of a "Fortress America" mentality - US withdrawal from the world behind a missile shield.

Thirdly, the erosion of confidence in the NPT norm against additional countries developing nuclear weapons. This could make it easier for North Korea, Iraq, Iran and perhaps many others to join India and Pakistan in acquiring nuclear weapons.

If so, this is a recipe for encouraging proliferation, which in turn threatens to undermine the disarmament process itself.

George Bunn is consulting professor at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. He was general counsel to the United States negotiators of the NPT, as well as US Ambassador to the disarmament conference in Geneva.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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