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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 48, July 2000

US Administration Wrestles With Domestic, International Controversy over NMD


In recent months, US preparations to deploy a National Missile Defence (NMD) to protect against limited ballistic missile attack from 'rogue states', or 'states of concern' (see news item below), has become one of the dominant issues in international relations, partly because of the imminence of a decision by President Clinton whether, when and on what scale to deploy NMD systems, and partly because of the probability that deployment would gravely destabilise the military-political relationship between the US and both Russia and China. Deployment will shatter the 1972 US-Russia Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty unless Russia agrees to amendments which it currently regards as unacceptable and destructive of the strategic balance, to the point of compelling the abandonment of the bilateral strategic nuclear arms reduction (START) process. China regards US NMD plans as designed in part to counter its nuclear capability. Other states, including many American allies, are expressing concern that global security - and, most immediately, efforts to push for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament - will be set back, possibly for many years, if Washington crosses the NMD Rubicon.

In such a fraught context, the failure of a key US missile interceptor system on July 8 received immense worldwide attention (see Documents and Sources for details and reaction. The setback appears unlikely, however, to deter the Department of Defense from presenting a Deployment Readiness Review (DDR) to President Clinton in the next few months, leaving open the option of a deployment decision before the end of the President's tenure. There is strong speculation, as reported in the last issue, that the President may act essentially to keep open options for his successor by approving the commencement - the 'pouring of concrete' - of an NMD radar complex in Alaska, a move which recently revised US legal opinion suggests will not be in violation of the ABM Treaty, though this view is certain to be hotly contested in Moscow and elsewhere. For his part, Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush is actively contemplating unilateral US nuclear reductions outside the START process, coupled with an unrestricted NMD programme consigning the ABM Treaty to the history books. Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, is opposed to both these facets of the Bush approach, insisting that a new strategic triad - a revised ABM Treaty, an ongoing START process, and a limited US NMD deployment - can be safely put in place.

Developments in the US

On July 13, reacting to the failure of the July 8 test, the Senate narrowly (52-48) rejected an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill proposed by Dick Durbin (Democrat - Illinois) which would have required the Department of Defense to test the intercept system against countermeasures likely to be deployed against it. Speaking succinctly for the amendment, Paul Wellstone (Democrat - Minnesota) argued: "Is it too much to ask that we be certain that this system works before we move ahead with deployment?" Durbin himself argued that "once that system become operational it should work… [I]f the fate of Americans will truly hang in the balance, we owe this nation, and every family and every mother, father, and child, our very best effort in building a credible effective deterrence." However, the proposal was denounced by Thad Cochran (Republican - Mississippi) as an "unprecedented effort by the Senate to micromanage a weapons system testing programme. In no other programme has the Senate tried to legislate in this way, to dictate to the Department of Defense how a classified national security testing programme should be conducted."

Also on July 13, three senior Senate Democrats - Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (South Dakota), Carl Levin (Michigan) and Joseph Biden (Delaware) - held a press conference to appeal to the President to defer any deployment decision. Daschle argued that such a decision would be self-evidently premature in light of the fact that "we don't have sufficient information about [the system's] technological feasibility, we really don't know what its impact is going to be on [the] ABM [Treaty], we really don't know its effect on overall national security." According to Senator Levin: "There is no way that we can say that this system will be operationally effective, given the failure of this last test… [T]here is no way…that we will be more secure with this system than without it." Referring to the possibility of the President deciding to approve construction work on a NMD radar complex, Biden noted: "If we pour concrete in Alaska now, in my humble opinion, we should pour concrete in the cavity of our brains."

Notwithstanding such protestations, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Rear Admiral Craig Quigley told reporters on July 11 that, despite the test failure, Defense Secretary William Cohen planned to submit his NMD readiness report and recommendations to the President "within three to four weeks".

The validity and even integrity of the Pentagon's report to the President is likely to be publicly doubted. On June 22, 53 Democratic members of the House of Representatives wrote to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Louis Freeh, urging him to investigate "serious allegations of fraud and cover-up" with reference to NMD testing and the presentation of test results. According to the letter: "The American people need an independent investigation of this matter to determine if the well-documented and serious allegations of fraud in the National Missile Defence system are true and if a cover-up of that fraud has taken place…"

For its part, in addition to utterly rejecting any accusation of impropriety or dishonesty, the Pentagon took solace from a report by a panel of experts, appointed by Secretary Cohen and headed by former Air Force Chief of Staff Larry Welch, suggesting that the 2005 deadline for an operative NMD system was technically possible, if challenging. In the unclassified version of report's executive summary, released on June 13, the Welch Panel observes:

"Technical capability to develop and field the limited system to meet the defined threat in 2005 is available.

Meeting the 2005…schedule goal with the required technical performance remains high risk. However, the IRT [Independent Review Team] sees no reason to change the schedule at present.

The test envelope needs to be expanded beyond that now permitted…

[T]he NMD programme requires critical attention to potential countermeasures…

The IRT will continue to review the programme with particular emphasis on countermeasure challenges."

According to Defense Department spokesperson Kenneth Bacon (June 19): "We regard this as an encouraging report because it says we're on the right technical path to meet the planned… deployment date…"

On June 17, the Washington Post published advance details of a report into NMD costs and technology conducted by the General Accounting Office (GAO). The report observes a high level of uncertainty surrounding key aspects of the programme. Most importantly, it notes, the "intelligence community is uncertain about what countermeasures a rogue nation would employ in attempting to defeat a missile defence system." The GAO conducted its study at the request of Senator Daniel Akaka (Democrat - Hawaii). Akaka told the Post: "The…report raises serious concerns… As a long time supporter of national missile defence, I believe that the increase in performance risks because of flight-test restrictions and uncertainties regarding the nature of the threat need to be addressed sooner rather than later in the testing phase. … Right now we appear to be pushing the envelope of our technical capabilities…"

International Developments

Alongside its vehement opposition to NMD, China is expressing concern over US consideration of options for a theatre missile defence (TMD) system in Asia, to be developed in conjunction with regional allies. Speaking in Rome on July 6, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji observed: "China is categorically opposed to the TMD system… The system would aim to put Taiwan in a sphere of protection. This would be blatant interference in Chinese affairs… [W]e have assumed common positions on NMD and TMD… America's NMD plan goes against the trend of the times, harms international disarmament and arms control efforts, and will have a negative impact on the global strategic balance… US plans to study a TMD system for its military allies will greatly increase the defense needs of other countries and harm peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region…" Visiting Beijing on July 10, John Holum, President Clinton's senior advisor on arms control, conceded: "[W]e don't rule out the possibility that some time in the future Taiwan may have TMD capabilities." Secretary Cohen also visited Beijing in mid-July (see Documents and Sources), noting with reference to the TMD issue on July 13: "We discussed theatre missile defence programmes. I know that's of some interest to Japan. We will continue our R&D programmes on theatre missile defence as well, but what we did discuss is ways in which we can cooperate and reduce the spread of this kind of technology that will pose a threat not only to the United States, but to European countries, Russia, and, indeed, even China itself."

As reported in the last issue, President Putin is proposing the cooperative, US-European development of ABM Treaty-compatible boost-phase interceptor systems. Details are sketchy, and US officials are expressing scepticism - on June 30, Avis Bohlen, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, stated rather disparagingly: "The proposal for a European defence is still on the table… They still appear to be trying to figure out themselves what they mean... It may well be that they have not sorted out all the angles." On July 10, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters that the proposals were in the process of being followed up and made more tangible: "After President Putin's initiatives in Europe, I see possible new initiatives to preserve strategic stability and make the world community join efforts in combating potential threats, no matter where they could come from." On June 28, an unnamed American official told reporters that the US and Russia would shortly be "resuming our longstanding cooperation in theatre missile defence," cooperation set to include joint exercises scheduled to take place before the end of the year at Fort Bliss in Texas.

Ivanov has been expressing concern in recent weeks about the actual role of the US HAVE STARE, or Globus II, radar station based in Vardo in the Norwegian Arctic. Norway and America insist the purpose of the radar is to monitor space debris; Russia suspects its purpose is to track Russian missiles as part of the international infrastructure the US NMD would require. On June 22, Ivanov requested that "Norwegian and Russian experts…inspect the radar together," adding that "Russia can also take part in the further development of the radar…" However, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland was quick to dismiss the suggestion, telling the NTB news agency (June 22): "There's no question of cooperating with the Russians on the development of the Vardo radar… Norwegian authorities have provided Russian authorities with technical details about this radar. I can guarantee that the radar will not be used to undermine the ABM Treaty, of which Norway is one of the strongest defenders… It's unreasonable [for Russia] to continue debate about this, making us repeat our view time after time…" The same day, however, the Commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, Colonel General Vladimir Yakovlev, told Norwegian NTV television that Russia's concerns remained acute: "With certain modernisation and the creation of new systems, the station could…provide [information to] anti-rocket defence systems of the future… The [NMD] system could then act against our intercontinental missiles in the early stages of launch."

On June 23, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing alarm at reports that Denmark was "hastily preparing an agreement on the conduct of work to modernize the early-warning radar station located at the US air base in Thule (Greenland) as part of the American program to create a national missile defence." The statement continued: "One cannot but view the agreement being prepared as undermining the…ABM Treaty. Denmark risks being drawn into a process that leads to [the] unpredictable upsetting of strategic stability. And if the US plan to deploy a national missile defence is implemented, not only the United States but also Denmark will certainly be responsible for wrecking the ABM Treaty with all the consequences that entails, including possible response measures on the part of Russia."

On July 15, Iran conducted a successful test flight of its Shahab-3 medium-range (800 miles/1,300 kilometres) ballistic missile. According to an unnamed Defence Ministry spokesperson: "This missile is part of our program for the defence industry and would in no way threaten other countries…" Iran is also believed to be developing a longer-range Shahab-4 missile.

Israel reacted with alarm to the test, while the US characterised it as the kind of development justifying US missile defence plans. According to Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Shah, speaking on Army Radio in the day of the test: "This is a step forward in the Iranian build-up of power, and as a state that Iran says is the Devil and must be eradicated from the world, we cannot be apathetic… [W]e have to go up one, two or even three levels in our defence abilities… They are mainly building this missile in order to equip it with nuclear warheads in the next few years, and Russia helps them in these nuclear projects. Only the United States can influence Russia…" Speaking on July 17, US Defense Secretary Cohen observed: "This does not come as a surprise… I have pointed to Iran and the testing of the Shahab-3 and what I assume will be the testing of the [Shahab-]4 in the future and beyond that, as one of the reasons why it is important to undertake to research, develop and potentially deploy an NMD system that would provide protection against countries such as Iran posing a threat to the United States…"

Cohen made his remarks in Sydney, following a meeting with Australian Defence Minister John Moore. Asked by reporters about Australia's possible contribution to an NMD system - particularly with regard to the Pine Gap satellite relay station in Alice Springs - Cohen replied: "Obviously Australia has played an important role in terms of its early-warning capabilities and I would expect that, should a decision be made to go forward at some point, Australia would continue to play an important role in shared early warning…" On June 29, the Australian Senate adopted a motion urging the US not to proceed with NMD deployment.


United States

President Clinton, comments to reporters, June 28: "The most important thing I can say…is that I have not made a final decision… Let me try to at least set up the thing, because I'm working hard on it now. Remember…when Congress passed a law about this a couple years ago…and we had to…come up with some timetables? I said two things that I want to repeat today. First of all, insofar as there might be technology available which would protect us and other people…from missile attacks with warheads of weapons of mass destruction, obviously anybody would have a moral obligation to explore that technology… Secondly, whether I would make a decision to go forward would depend upon four things: one, the nature of the threat; two, the feasibility of the technology; three, the cost…; and four, the overall impact on our national security, which includes our nuclear allies and our European alliance, our relationship with Russia, our relationship with China, what the boomerang effect might be about whatever China might do in South Asia, with the Indians and then the Pakistanis, and so on. So what I have tried to do since then is to say as little as possible, except to explore what would have to be done in our relationships…to keep our options open… But…the truly accurate thing [to say] is that I have not yet formulated a position which I am prepared to go to the American people with, but I will do so sometime over the next several weeks…"

Letter to President Clinton from 50 US Nobel Laureates, July 6: "We urge you not to make the decision to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system during the remaining months of your administration. We and other independent scientists have long argued that anti-ballistic missile systems, particularly those attempting to intercept re-entry vehicles in space, will inevitably lose in an arms race of improvements to offensive missiles. North Korea has taken dramatic steps toward reconciliation with South Korea. Other dangerous states will arise. But what would such a state gain by attacking the United States except its own destruction? While the benefits of the proposed anti-ballistic missile system are dubious, the dangers created by a decision to deploy are clear. It would be difficult to persuade Russia or China that the United States is wasting tens of billions of dollars on an ineffective missile system against small states that are unlikely to launch a missile attack on the US. The Russians and Chinese must therefore conclude that the presently planned system is a stage in developing a bigger system directed against them. They may respond by restarting an arms race in ballistic missiles and having missiles in a dangerous 'launch-on-warning' mode. Even if the next planned test of the proposed anti-ballistic missile system works as planned, any movement toward deployment would be premature, wasteful and dangerous."

Note: the letter was drafted by Dr. Hans Bethe (Nobel Laureate 1967), veteran US nuclear weapons scientist and founding member of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). For a full list of signatories, see the FAS website, http://www.fas.org/press/000706-letter.htm.

Letter to the President from 45 US China experts, June 29: "Current plans for NMD deployment are likely to serve as a catalyst for China to accelerate nuclear weapons modernization, since it believes that even a simple missile defence configuration will leave its nuclear arsenal vulnerable."

Pentagon spokesperson Kenneth Bacon, June 29: "[The Chinese] were in the process of modernizing their strategic force long before the national missile defence became a hot political issue in the United States or a hot diplomatic issue on the world scene today…"

Senator Biden, speech to the Senate, July 14: "Let me put it bluntly: China does not believe that National missile Defence is oriented against North Korea. According to those who justify a limited national missile defence on the basis of the North Korean threat, North Korea is ruled by a nutcase who by 2005 will be in position to launch an ICBM with weapons of mass destruction against the United States, and will do so without giving one thought to the consequences. Who can blame China for questioning this rationale for a national missile defence? I question it myself. … China has only a handful of old, silo-based, liquid-fuel missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the United States. Beijing calculates that any US system sufficient to deal with 10-12 North Korean missiles could also handle 10-12 Chinese ICBMs. And guess what? Notwithstanding our repeated protests to the contrary, they are probably right."

Senator Biden, speech at the Cato Institute, Washington, June 27: "Russia's recent proposals…are for boost-phase interceptors. Those proposals may not be workable. They would be less useful for us…than for Russia or Western Europe, which are vulnerable to threats from shorter-range missiles than those that we would face. But the Russian proposals are a base upon which we might build a different approach to national missile defense. … A cooperative missile defence could knit Russia into a Western defence framework. Indeed, some Russian Generals have called for that, despite their distrust of us. This would transform Russia's role in the world. It might just pave the way for a worldwide shift from pure deterrence to an agreed mix of offence and defence."

Air Force Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, June 29: "I do not share the assessment that what we are attempting to accomplish with our system is in any way impossible… [T]hose who charge that the system cannot be technologically feasible simply do not have all the information they need to make such a conclusion. I believe the tests planned over the course of the next five years will continue to build our confidence in our ability to discriminate, to identify target warheads in spite of anticipated countermeasures, and to destroy any incoming warheads using advanced hit-to-kill technology… Is it a perfect system? No, but it beats little or no testing at all, which is the problem generally faced [by states] that are being given credit by some of our critics for developing unsophisticated countermeasures that are believed by them to be capable of overcoming our planned system…"


President Vladimir Putin, interview on Reuters, ORT (Russia) and NHK (Japan) television, July 12: "I believed and still believe that the position of the US President has some basis to it. And the basis is that we should assume that such threats can theoretically, in principle, emerge one day. But we do not believe that there are such threats now, nor that they are coming from any specific states… The difference in our approaches is that we offer to move further, preserving the level of mutual trust and the balance of strategic arms created as a result of the ABM pact, to work together on limiting potential threats which in theory may emerge…"

Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev, interview in the Independent Military Review, June 23: "The true reasons for the missile shield deployment are not…alleged threats from rogue nations… Apparently, some people in the United States have been trying to obtain strategic domination by achieving a technological edge over the rest of the world and creating exclusive conditions of invulnerability, thus implementing…'Fortress America'. … Such a comprehensive defence system will be primarily aimed against the deterrent potential of the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China. Experts from the Russian Defence Ministry have no doubt about that…"

Colonel General Yakovlev, article in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, June 27: "[If the Americans proceed, it will] cause problems for them. First and foremost, it could lead to [the] tearing up of all treaties and the withdrawal from joint inspections of nuclear weapons. Isn't it useful for the Americans to know what's going on here? … The answer to a new American anti-ballistic missile system could range from changing the military purpose of silo-based and mobile Topol and Topol-M systems right up to a return to outlawed but highly effective missile complexes."

Note: on June 21, the Interfax news agency quoted Yakovlev as suggesting Russia would consider withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as part of its response to US deployment. Such a move would open up the prospect of medium-range ballistic missiles such as the SS-20 being reintroduced and targetted at European states integrated into US NMD early-warning and radar-tracking infrastructure.


Sha Zukang, Director of the Foreign Ministry's Department of Arms Control and Disarmament, interview with the Washington Post, July 14: "I have spent the most valuable and important part of my life, 16 years, on these issues… Now all of these achievements are at risk. … [If the US proceeds, t]he consequences are…terrible for us… To say the least, our enthusiasm and our participation in all of those [arms control] regimes, particularly in cooperating with the United States, our mood, let me say, would be severely dampened. … It is too early to say what we would do. All I can say is that China will do everything possible to ensure its security, and the measures it will take will be in proportion to the success [of NMD]…"

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhu Bangzao, June 20: "China has consistently held that the US pretext for so-called NMD and TMD systems does not have a leg to stand on and [that] these anti-missile systems will sabotage global and regional stability… We urge the United States to heed the strong voices of international society and scrap as soon as possible this plan which harms others and does not benefit itself…"


Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, speaking after a meeting of G-8 Foreign Ministers, Miyazaki, Japan, July 13: "There are so many other ways we could be pursuing stability… We have expressed very strong concerns that any movement of the national missile defence that abrogates the ABM Treaty would be wrong. We don't like anything that would further expand acceleration of missile capacity."


Defence Minister George Fernandes, July 4: "The US should give up this whole exercise, as it will lead to far too many problems, [many more] than one can visualise now."

Reports: GAO report finds fault with missile shield plan, Washington Post, June 17; More doubts are raised on missile shield, Washington Post, June 18; Pentagon - defense review encouraging, Associated Press, June 19; China slams US missile plan before Albright trip, Reuters, June 20; Russian official says Moscow may retaliate on ABM, Reuters, June 21; Russia wants radar role but Norway opposed, Reuters, June 22; Opponents want missile test inquiry, Associated Press, June 22; Russia rejects US missile assurance, Associated Press, June 23; Russian Foreign Ministry Statement, Document 595-23-6-2000, June 23; Byliner - Senator Joseph Biden on national missile defense, US State Department (Washington File), June 27; Russia nuclear chief threatens US treaty sanctions, Reuters, June 27; Pentagon panel backs missile plan, Associated Press, June 28; Press Conference by the President, The White House, June 28; Joint exercise on missile seen for US and Russia, New York Times, June 29; Senate says no to US missile defense, Australian Peace Committee/Friends of the Earth Australia Press Release, June 29; US determined to move forward on missile defense program, US State Department (Washington File), June 29; Pressure on Clinton to put off missile decision, Reuters, June 29; Text - General Kadish's Senate testimony on national missile defense, US State Department (Washington File), June 30; Russians working out missile defense, Associated Press, June 30; India expresses concern at US missile shield testing, Xinhua, July 4; Russia's Putin backs China in opposing Taiwan missile defense, Bridge News, July 5; China slams US missile shield before talks, Reuters, July 6; Nobel laureates warn against missile defense deployment, Federation of American Scientists, July 6; Transcript - arms control chief July 8 Beijing press conference, US State Department (Washington File), July 10; Putin to press Clinton to drop anti-missile plan, Reuters, July 10; China greets Cohen with anti-missile blast, Reuters, July 11; Cohen to make NMD recommendation in three to four weeks, US Defense Department Report, July 11; Putin sees US missile concerns but no threat now, Reuters, July 12; G8 tackles war diamonds, sidesteps missile shield, Reuters, July 12; Transcript - Cohen July 13 briefing on talks with Chinese President, US State Department (Washington File), July 13; Three key Senate Democrats urge delay on missile defense decision, Congressional Report, July 13; Clinton urged to defer missile rule, Associated Press, July 13; Senate votes on missile testing, Associated Press, July 13; Foreign Ministers warn Clinton on reception for missile defense, Washington Post, July 14; China threatens arms control collapse, Washington Post, July 14; Clinton is urged to defer to successor on missile shield, Washington Post, July 14; Iran tests ballistic missile, Associated Press, July 15; Iran test-fires controversial Shahab missile, Reuters, July 15; Israel denounces Iran Shahab missile test-firing, Reuters, July 15; Cohen - US needs missile defense, Associated Press, July 17; US Defense Secretary says Iran test no surprise, Reuters, July 17; Text - Senator Biden July 14 on National Missile Defense, China, US State Department (Washington File), July 17.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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