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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 44, March 2000

National Missile Defence: Developing Disaster
By Charles D. Ferguson and John E. Pike

"President Clinton faces a [missile defence] deployment decision later this year. Before making that decision, he will assess the threat, technological feasibility, affordability, and overall strategic environment, including arms control objectives. He will weigh the views of our allies, as well as Russia's willingness to modify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty." Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, The Times, March 1, 2000.


Within a few weeks of Cohen's article in The Times, the United States (US) National Missile Defence (NMD) programme suffered another setback - a two-month delay in the next intercept test. This delay has pushed back the Deployment Readiness Review (DRR) that was originally scheduled to begin in June. Although presidential election year considerations will presumably influence President Clinton's decision, the four relevant criteria are:

  1. Does the missile threat to the US justify deployment?
  2. Has the development effort readied the technology?
  3. How will deployment affect progress in arms control, including revisions to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty?
  4. Can the US afford the financial burden?
United States NMD plans call for an initial deployment by 2005 to protect all 50 states against limited attacks from long-range ballistic missiles. Such attacks could consist of a handful of warheads supported by simple penetration aids. To counter such threats, this NMD system would include 100 ground-based interceptors based in Alaska with site construction starting in 2001.

Both space-based and ground-based sensors would provide detection and tracking of incoming warheads. In particular, the Space-Based Infrared (SBIRS)-High satellite network would detect missile launches. To perform the much more technically demanding discrimination between countermeasures and warheads, this NMD system would require the SBIRS-Low satellite network. Enhanced versions of five existing ballistic missile early warning radars and an X-Band phased array radar at Shemya in Alaska would track the warheads.

In addition, the NMD programme appears to reserve the option of an interim deployment by 2003. Such deployment would employ 20 interceptors and prototype hardware. By 2010, ensuing deployments would include an additional site, bringing the total number of interceptors up to as many as 250, along with more radars to counter a few tens of warheads accompanied by complex penetration aids.

Cost projections for these systems, including associated space-based sensors, are tens of billions of dollars - a small fraction of the astronomical costs associated with the Reagan-era Star Wars system. The expenditures for limited NMD, therefore, have not aroused as much apprehension over whether or not these are wise investments from the public purse. More attention has focussed on the other more troublesome deployment criteria.

The Missile Threat

Given the implausibility of a massive nuclear exchange with Russia, American concerns over ballistic missile attack have centred on the "rogue" nations of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, although concern also exists about the possibility of a small accidental launch from Russia. Moreover, many Republican leaders have called for missile defence against China. Though the "rogue" nations have had ballistic missile programmes for several years, none of them has developed a reliable long-range missile that can strike the United States.

The renewed impetus for NMD began with the release of the November 1995 National Intelligence Estimate Emerging Missile Threats to North America During the Next 15 Years. It determined that "No country other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada." NMD proponents found this judgment wanting and clamoured for subsequent assessments. These advocates received what they requested with the July 1998 report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat, headed by former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The Rumsfeld report sounded an alarming view of the missile threat and the intelligence community's inability to predict the emergence of this threat. Although the latter point was somewhat justified, it missed the mark because the intelligence community is more notorious for predicting a faster threat development than accords with reality. For instance, estimates of when North Korea would flight-test its long-range Taepo Dong missiles have been out by several years. In 1994, the intelligence community predicted that the Taepo Dong-1 could be tested that year and deployed as soon as 1996. It estimated that the Taepo Dong-2 would be flight-tested in the mid to late 1990s. However, the Taepo Dong-1 has experienced only one flight test, which was in late 1998, and is still not deployed. The Taepo Dong-2 is still untested.

Significantly, the Rumsfeld report operated under premises which were different to those used for other intelligence estimates. In particular, it assessed the possibility rather than the probability of missile threat development. Without considering the intentions of potential adversaries, this report has distorted the perception of missile threats and magnified them out of proportion to more pressing security concerns.

Many US government officials now believe that traditional deterrence no longer applies to the "rogue" nations. In Cohen's March 1 article in The Times, he elaborated, "[O]ur ability to launch a devastating counter-strike against any country ... may not deter rogue states whose leaders are indifferent to their people's welfare." These officials have yet to explain convincingly how "rogue" nations would be undeterred. Although history reveals deterrence failures, these are failures to seek deterrence rather than to achieve deterrence.

Technological Readiness

Despite the perception in recent years that there is a conflict between the White House and Congress over the desirability of NMD, the conflict, in actuality, has occurred between the Pentagon and Congress over the feasibility of NMD. The Pentagon wants to ensure that all components of any new weapons system, especially something as complex as NMD, are thoroughly tested before deployment. In contrast, congressional Republicans have pushed for early deployment.

The Pentagon recently lowered the testing standard to one successful intercept to justify an affirmative deployment decision. Previously, the putative criteria were that two successful intercept tests should occur and one should happen during an integrated system test. Of the two intercept tests that have occurred, the one conducted in October 1999 was a dubious success because the decoy reportedly helped the interceptor to hit the warhead, while the one conducted in January this year failed. This failure contributed to postponing the next intercept test, an integrated test - originally planned for late April - to late June.

Nonetheless, a successful intercept in June will say little about the readiness of actual NMD hardware. The tests before the DRR will have involved surrogate hardware. Importantly, the actual booster for the kill vehicle and the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle itself will not be tested for several years.

Faced with a paucity of data pertaining to prototypical equipment, the DRR will have two choices: decide to purchase long lead items to support deploying a system by 2003 or wait until the tests of actual components before making a deployment decision. Such tests are scheduled for early fiscal year 2001 for the booster and early fiscal year 2003 for the kill vehicle's final configuration.

Recognizing the rushed nature of the DRR schedule, the NMD Review Group, led by retired Air Force General Larry Welch, released a November 1999 report that recommended the DRR be recast as a deployment feasibility review and should be focussed on a subsequent readiness assessment. Regardless of the depiction of the DRR, any political determination to deploy must be supplemented by subsequent evaluations considering the performance of actual system components.

The Impact on Arms Control

NMD deployment directly impacts the ABM Treaty, START II ratification, and START III negotiations.

The ABM Treaty remains a cornerstone underlying strategic arms reductions between the US and Russia. Since 1972, it has facilitated strategic arms control by enshrining the principle of strategic deterrence. It placed strict limits on the ability of one side to construct defences to counter the other side's ballistic missiles.

During the Cold War, the ABM Treaty ratified the equality of the two superpowers. Although the demise of the Cold War has negated their geopolitical equality, the ABM Treaty still serves to engage the US and Russia in arms control and to foster co-operative threat reduction measures.

The Russian Duma has linked preservation of the ABM Treaty to ratification of START II. Therefore, severe modification or abrogation of this treaty threatens to stymie further strategic arms reductions.

US deployment of NMD demands both revision of the premise of the ABM Treaty and considerable alterations to the Treaty. An initial deployment would require elimination of the Article I ban on nationwide defences and revision of the Article III limitations on allowed deployment areas to permit interceptors in Alaska. A Protocol to the Treaty, which entered into force in 1976, allowed defence of either each Parties' capital city or an intercontinental ballistic missile base, which for the US was in North Dakota, the second site in the current NMD plans. Moreover, stationing large phased array X-band radars in Alaska would require alteration of Article III, which stipulates that such radars must be co-located with interceptors. Deployment of such radars at Thule in Greenland and RAF Fylingdales in Britain would require amendment of the Article IX ban on deployment of ABM elements in other nations. Further, the SBIRS network would require relief from the Article V ban on space-based ABM components and the Article VI ban on providing non-ABM systems with capabilities to oppose strategic ballistic missiles or their components during flight.

So far, Russia and the US are publicly sticking to their ABM and START III positions and do not yet appear ready to bargain. Russia rules out changes to the ABM Treaty and seeks to lower the START III strategic arms level to 1,500 or fewer warheads. In contrast, the US wants changes in the ABM Treaty to allow deployment of a limited NMD system and holds to the 1997 Helsinki Protocol on START III that set a level of 2,000 to 2,500 strategic warheads. It has approached the Russians on a take-it-or-leave-it basis to ensure that the American position is not subject to further "improvement." Nonetheless, future NMD deployments and improvements would likely require additional changes in the ABM Treaty, leading Russia to perceive a long and drawn out erosion of the Treaty.

Without treaty modification, knowing when the US would be in material breach of the treaty is somewhat unclear. However, groundbreaking for the interceptor site is slated for April 2001 in Alaska, and a material breach would probably follow soon thereafter. Six months before this time the US either has to secure agreement from Russia to amend the treaty or give notice of treaty withdrawal. Because this time is squarely during the Clinton Administration's watch, the onus is on President Clinton to make a responsible decision.

Having suffered a defeat late last year over ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Clinton is concerned about his legacy in arms control. He is, therefore, unlikely to further damage his legacy by being the first president to withdraw from an arms control treaty.


Clinton could heed the call of influential people as disparate as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former President Jimmy Carter, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, and Democratic Senator Joseph Biden who have recently argued for delay. Of course, there are two different messages from this crowd. Hoping that the next president will be Governor George W. Bush, the Republicans want him to make the decision and get the NMD system they want. The Democrats want to buy more time. However, a United States government led by Al Gore will still most likely have to contend with a Republican controlled Congress. Therefore, a decision to delay would certainly buy time but would delay the inevitable.

Nevertheless, either a Republican or Democratic executive branch is required by law to perform a defence review in 2001. Such a review would include an evaluation of missile defence.

Clinton could also be persuaded that the polls show that public support for missile defence is weak and shallow. According to a poll by the Mellman Group, "Few [17 percent] of those who support missile defence will vote against a candidate who opposes spending money to deploy such a system." He should recall that during the 1996 presidential campaign Bob Dole, the Republican candidate, utterly failed in making NMD a campaign issue.

If Clinton makes a political commitment for NMD later this year, he need not place it on a collision course with the ABM Treaty. As long as the US does not intend to abrogate it, the US and Russia could find a way to reconcile the Treaty with any NMD developments through subsequent negotiations.

Charles Ferguson is the director of the Nuclear Policy Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, DC. John Pike is the director of the Space Policy Project at FAS.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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