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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 44, March 2000

US Ballistic Missile Defence: A French View
By Thérèse Delpech

In France, the debate concerning Ballistic Missile Defences (BMD) started out all the more heated because it was initially highly theoretical, launching the kind of abstract discussion most of the French enjoy. In addition, this allowed for lively discussions with the Americans, another favourite French entertainment. It was also seen as a repetition of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) debate against which France had already prepared a number of theoretical 'counter-weapons', which could now be recycled.

In an environment where US decisions were still pending, the threats ill-defined, the systems involved diverse and, most of the time not very well known, it was genuinely difficult to have a rational debate based on facts and arguments rather than emotions and memories.

At the same time, it was clear to French leaders and experts that, whatever their different views on the subject, extremely important considerations were at stake. Among them a possible alteration in the balance of offensive/defensive capabilities (or, to be more precise, a further deterioration of an already unbalanced situation), and a serious difficulty in assessing the real consequences. This was notably because they would involve reactions in very different parts of the world, particularly the Middle East and East Asia, two strategic hot spots. Finally, even in the absence of any deployment the American BMD projects - National Missile Defence (NMD) and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) - could be used to justify decisions to modernise nuclear and ballistic nuclear arsenals already taken beforehand (for example, by China), simply to provoke a new arms race through an opponent's anticipation, or to further aggravate tensions with Russia.

Most of us engaged in the debate within France did not forget that the Soviet ABM defence system around Moscow (the only missile defence system deployed during the Cold War, which was equipped then, and perhaps still now, with megaton yield nuclear warheads) may have played a significant role in prompting the modernisation of Western nuclear arsenals (decoys, stealth technologies...). Today, the possible responses to new American defence systems are also many fold and largely unpredictable. Nor did many of us forget that SDI was said to have made a contribution to ending the Cold War, although actual deployment never took place. If true, this was quite an achievement! Conversely, BMD could now play a role in cooling off the current peace. The offensive/defensive relationship is fragile, easily upset and difficult to repair. All of these considerations have been serious enough to raise questions.

There was also clearly in France, as elsewhere, a sense of acceleration in 1999, which was seen as a crucial year in many respects: the US National Missile Defense (NMD) Act was passed by the Senate on March 17, the House on May 21, and signed by President Clinton on July 23. Secondly, 1999 was the year that saw a few successful tests follow after a long succession of failures: PAC3 in March, THAAD in June through August, and the EKV (Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle) in October. But the crucial year - the real turning point - was 1998. This was also the year of the bipartisan Rumsfeld Report on the ballistic missile threat, and of three new Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) tests conducted by Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. There was less comment in France on these two subjects than in the United States at the time, with the possible exception of the North Korean Taepo Dong test, which generated many reactions not only in the US, but also Japan and Europe.

The key issues within the debate were probably assessed differently in France and America:

Firstly, is there a threat to justify these projects? Awareness of the existence of actual ballistic missile proliferation, evolving more rapidly and more unpredictably than was generally thought at the time of the Missile Technology Control Regime's (MTCR) creation in 1987, was real in France. Otherwise, how can one explain the French amendment to the Russian resolution on the ABM Treaty at the 1999 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) First Committee? The purpose of this amendment was to underline the necessity of thinking about missile defences and ballistic missile proliferation together, something the Tokyo Forum Report had already strongly emphasized in July 1999. The liveliest discussion began with the question: is BMD the most appropriate answer to ballistic missile proliferation? Many doubt it. To be fair, serious analysis concerning ways and means of improving the ballistic missile proliferation control regime is still lacking in France, even if such improvements would be consistent with the French concept that ballistic missile proliferation is an essential part of the problem.

Secondly, effectiveness. Obviously, the American technology (or technologies) involved in the NMD and TMD projects are very demanding. They are non-nuclear, requiring therefore pinpoint accuracy. The main questions here appear to be: will the tests scheduled before the US President's decision this year provide an adequate basis for making such a decision? Here again, many doubt it. General Larry Welch himself, a former Air Force Chief of Staff, declared that the schedule was a "rush to failure". Will the tests reflect conflict conditions in the real world? Same answer. Will they be 100% or even 95% foolproof? Certainly not, and even ten per cent failure could cause insufferable damage. Finally, is not NMD a post-modern "Maginot Line" (still fresh in many French minds) which is easy to circumvent? Probably, yes. Finally, to cut a long story short, there is sometimes a feeling that even without any technological guarantees the United States will go forward for political reasons. Is such a feeling wrong? If it is, additional explanations are probably necessary, particularly among allies, since it is in everyone's interest to find ways to bridge differences. Serious exchanges on the subject have already started within the Alliance.

Thirdly, all the likely strategic consequences are almost impossible to predict, but they are deemed to be potentially huge. The well-known lack of strategic vision in America, denounced by Americans themselves, is a matter of concern for such an important strategic project. This does not mean that the Europeans, and in particular the French, are currently assessing the subject any better than in the US. The opposite is probably true, because serious analysis is only just starting in Europe. But there is certainly a fear of being caught in a situation where the "invisible hand of technology" plays the sonata rather than the pianist. The strategic and political dimensions of TMD and, to a greater extent, NMD, should be jointly assessed as seriously as the technical dimension. But even the technical dimension does not seem to currently provide the correct basis for a making decision in the year 2000, whatever the results of the next test planned for now June. To make things worse, three key elections will take place this year (in Taiwan, Russia and America), and this is not - in the view of many observers - the ideal year in which to take such major decisions that clearly require a calm political environment. To simply postpone a deployment decision would make sense until President Clinton's successor is elected.

Finally, one should underline some European specificities which could play an important role in the debate:

Firstly, the Europeans, unlike the Americans and for historic reasons, feel that vulnerability is a normal condition. They do not get mad about being vulnerable, because it has always been a part of their daily lives. One could here recall that from its very beginning, Europe has experienced invasions over many centuries.

Secondly, the Europeans have fewer military responsibilities around the world than the Americans. They should probably make an effort to better understand what it actually means to have so many international military ties and accords. But they may also feel that America is probably at risk of overstreching itself with its extensive responsibilities around the globe. The incredible strength America actually enjoys today could well suffer from having too many commitments abroad.

Thirdly, the Europeans fear the famous "decoupling" at the same time that they fear too much American interference in their own affairs. This contradiction makes life complicated for Washington as well as for its European allies; but life, after all, is about complexity. One might recall here that the first expression of European fear concerning decoupling occurred when American soil became vulnerable to Soviet missiles. Today, the argument is inverted: decoupling is feared because of an American desire to be less vulnerable. The German Foreign Minister in particular has expressed this fear in Washington. The reply was unambiguous: American commitments overseas will be better fulfilled if American soil is better protected. Again, this shows the complexity inherent to strategic relations and alliances much more than inconsistency or, even worse, bad faith, as some might easily assume. What is certain is that the Europeans, and the French in particular, cannot tell the Americans that their security is contingent on American vulnerability. Such an argument will simply not fly and rightly so.

Fourthly, the cost of the NMD system, coming at a time when defence budgets are declining in Europe, and when the need for conventional means (sometimes basic conventional means) is, on the contrary, increasing, has not encouraged the European nations to seriously consider investing in such systems. Wasting defence resources is hardly attractive in times of scarcity. However, there are clearly different schools of thought on the subject, particularly as time passes. If the Europeans become convinced that nothing will stop Washington in this respect, will they consider developing missile defences themselves? This may be the American agenda: deploy missile defences in Europe to protect NATO countries and present NMD as a co-operative strategic concept.

Finally, the growing trend in attempts to find technological solutions to strategic problems is worrying more than one leader or expert in Europe. However limited the scope of the US ballistic missile projects, they may have global consequences, especially in a context of deteriorating relations between the major powers. And almost nobody in France, or probably the rest of Europe, would accept these defences becoming a substitute for negotiations and multilateral regulating instruments. For very good reason: in short, Europe would become a victim of such a trend. The ABM Treaty was negotiated in a hostile strategic context and the irony is that the Russians strongly disliked the idea at first. Today, the NMD issue is about to be decided in an increasingly tense international situation. The 'hit to kill' NMD system contemplated in Alaska by 2003 may open up a new era defined by an unrealistic level of protection on the US side, and global 'waves' far away.

Thérèse Delpech expresses her personal views here. They should not be attributed to the French Government or the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA).

Editor's note: see Parliamentary Update, Documents & Sources and News Review for more in-depth coverage of BMD and related issues.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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