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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 50, September 2000

Clinton NMD Deferral Decision Lessens Immediate Sense of Crisis

On September 1, President Clinton announced (see last issue) the deferral to his successor of any decision to proceed with deployment of a national missile defence (NMD) system. Speculation had abounded that the President was considering granting a 'limited green-light' to deployment by declaring that preparatory work could begin for the construction of a new NMD radar-complex in Alaska next year. As reported in recent issues, the President had apparently received revised legal advice to the effect that, although the radar-complex would not be an ABM Treaty-permissible facility, construction could proceed, up to the stage of laying rail track at the site, without constituting a transgression. On August 30, however, media reports suggested that legal arguments were continuing. According to an unnamed Defense Department official: "There is no consensus. You can't put three lawyers in a room and get them to agree on anything..." An unnamed State Department official told Reuters: "The question here is when would we be in violation of the Treaty. Some think we already are by just saying we intend to develop a missile defense. Others say the whole system would have to be ready five years from now before the break comes..." Another unnamed Administration official was quoted in the New York Times as observing: "You have to have an aggressive interpretation of the treaty to argue that the rails are the point at which you would be in violation..."

In the wake of the decision, US officials were keen to stress that US efforts to amend the ABM Treaty remained a top priority. Briefing journalists on a meeting between Presidents Clinton and Putin at the UN on September 6, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger made clear that Washington was not prepared to engage in serious discussions on a START III nuclear reductions treaty except in parallel with ABM-amendment talks:

"We are prepared - we, the United States - are prepared to proceed vigorously with START III, including deeper reductions in strategic weaponry, but that will have to be in parallel with meaningful and productive discussions on strategic defences. And, as you know, we're not there yet... This is an iterative process. We have taken the position all along with the Russians that there was a lot we could do cooperatively, particularly if they would join us in recognizing that it is going to be necessary, probably sooner rather than later, to make amendments to the ABM Treaty. ... Actually, starting formal negotiations on START III is going to have to wait until Russia is prepared to join us in formal negotiations on strategic defence. ... I know that President Putin understands that the NMD issue is not off the table, it's not solved. There is going to have to be over time a change in the way that, not just the United States, but other countries, too, pursue active defence - by which I mean anti-missile defence. The ratio of active defence to what might be called pure deterrence is going to have to change because of the way in which the world has changed."

Berger made no mention of the commencement of formal START III negotiations requiring formal ratification of the START II Treaty, Washington's position prior to the Duma's conditional and controversial adoption of START II ratification legislation earlier this year. Under the terms of the legislation, Russia will not deposit its instrument of ratification until the US meets a number of conditions, including Senate ratification of changes to the ABM Treaty agreed in September 1997 but falling far short of the significant reorientation of the Treaty now being sought both by Congress and the Administration. For its part, Moscow has long argued that START III negotiations should take place as soon as possible, if need be in advance of full and final START II ratification, with the only condition being a secure and essentially uncontested ABM Treaty. The prospect thus seems to be opening up of Washington accepting START III talks only in the context of ABM Treaty amendment talks, and Moscow embracing START III talks only on the basis of an ABM Treaty remaining "fully in force," the phrase used by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in a written answer provided to journalists in Moscow on September 2:

"In accordance with the instruction given by the President...the Russian Foreign Ministry, jointly with other interested Ministries and Agencies, is actively preparing for formal talks with the United States on START III. At the [G-8] Summit in Okinawa [in July], President Putin presented to President Clinton detailed proposals on the main directions in the talks on START III. No doubt about it, the conclusion of START III is possible only if the ABM Treaty remains fully in force."

Ivanov also stressed, however, that Moscow was prepared to discuss the issue of missile threats, both with the US and other states: "The Russian side is working consistently to promote the initiative to create a Global Missile Control System which could be a component part of the global regime of the non-proliferation of missile and missile technologies. ... Russia is maintaining an intensive dialogue on matters of strategic stability also with other interested countries, first of all nuclear ones."

One practical effect of President Clinton's deferral decision seemed to be a pushing back of the earliest date an NMD system could enter service from 2005 to 2006 or 2007. However, briefing reporters on September 1, Berger suggested that 2005 had already slipped as a realistic target date:

"[T]he decision taken today...should not have a significant impact on the date this NMD system could be deployed... The best judgment of the experts who have examined this question...is that if we were able to commit today to proceed with our NMD, the system would most likely be operational around 2006 or 2007. So even if the next President made the decision next year to go forward with the first steps here, in terms of radar on Shemya Island, it would still be within that window of 2006 or 2007. ... Is there a potential threat before then? Yes. Is NMD our only defence against that? No. Deterrence has served us quite well for quite some time. And I think the President has pointed out that most countries - any country - would know that if it launched an attack on the United States, it would be pulverized."

On September 5, the Defense Department announced that the next test of the key NMD missile-interceptor system - last tested, unsuccessfully, in July - would be postponed from October/November to January next year, in order to allow more detailed analysis of technical problems.

The Director of the Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, appeared before the House Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on National Security on September 8, insisting that there were no insurmountable technical challenges in the NMD development programme: "There is no technical reason at this point...indicating that we could not develop an effective NMD system... Given our extensive toolbox and the 40 years of experience the United States has had with offensive and defensive weapon systems, we know how to play the countermeasures/counter-countermeasures game. And we know how to win. ... The problems are fixable." Kadish revealed that 93% of the "critical engagement functions" of the NMD systems tested so far have been demonstrated to work efficiently. According to the Director: "We had planned to be at about 94% at this stage, so we are very nearly where we expected to be..."

The test programme has been severely criticised for being unrealistic in its parameters, and even deliberately misleading in its presentation of results. On September 11, a letter dated July 31 from Thomas Kubic of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to Representative Dennis Kucinich (Democrat - Ohio) was made public, revealing that the Bureau was considering investigating allegations of fraud and deception related to the involvement of military contractor TRW Inc. in the NMD programme in 1995 and 1996. Allegations were first made against TRW earlier this year by Professor Theodore Postol, an arms control specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On September 11, Postol commented: "What I don't know is whether any of this is criminal because I'm not a lawyer. What I do know is it [this kind of activity] shouldn't be [allowed]."

Note: on August 22, US Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and Disarmament, visited Greenland to discuss the possible incorporation of the Thule radar complex in any future NMD system. Together with the Fylingdales radar base in the United Kingdom, Thule would be a crucial European component in the system's radar-tracking and early-warning infrastructure. On August 23, Maliianguaq Marcussen Moelgaard, a leading member of the Inuit Ataaqigiitand party and Chair of the Commission on Foreign Policy and Security in Greenland's Home Rule parliament, issued a statement expressing her vehement opposition to the US plan: "We firmly stand by the [Home Rule] Government's declaration last November which stipulated that Greenland would not accept the NMD project if it violated the ABM Treaty...and if it opens the way for a new Cold War, which we will be the victims of..." Greenland, as a province of Denmark, is not legally empowered to set its own foreign or defence policy. The Danish Government, however, has also expressed serious reservations about the NMD project.

Comment & Reaction


President Clinton, after meeting with President Putin, September 6: "Let me just say one thing about the ABM issue. We have worked together on nuclear issues very closely for virtually the whole time I've been in office... The decision that I made last week on our missile defence will create an opportunity for President Putin and the next American President to reach a common position. And I hope they can, because I think it's very important for the future that we continue to work together. When we work together, we can destroy thousands of tons of nuclear materials and lots of nuclear weapons... So I hope that the decision that I made will enable my successor and President Putin to resolve this issue and to continue working together on all the arms control issues."

Vice President Al Gore, NBC Television, September 2: "Provided that this threat from a country like North Korea or Iran does emerge over the next five to seven years...the mere fact that Russia opposed it would not dissuade me from approving it - if it worked, if it met our other goals..."

Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman, NBC Television, September 2: "I think it can work, and it will work..."

Republican Presidential Candidate George W. Bush, September 1: "President Clinton and Vice President Gore first denied the need for missile defences. Now they are leaving this important unfinished business for the next President."

Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican - Nebraska), September 1: "There will be dangerous consequences for America and the world if we rush to meet arbitrary decision deadlines..."

Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, BMDO spokesperson, September 5: "There is no real sense of disappointment. This was the President's decision. We'll keep pressing forward with the test programme."


Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhu Bangzao, September 4: "We hope that the US Government will have more contact and discussions with other countries on the matter so as to make a decision which can serve the fundamental interests of all the countries and peoples in the world."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, September 1: "US President Bill Clinton's decision not to take upon himself the responsibility for deploying the national anti-missile defence system is seen in Russia as a well thought-out and responsible step. ... [This] will lead to strengthening strategic stability and security in the whole world, and will raise the United States' authority in the eyes of the international community..."

President Putin, September 3: "I believe that this considered decision was taken after Clinton consulted his allies and hope that Russia's position was taken into account... [It is a] well-considered and responsible step [which] will enable us to count on constructive dialogue with our American partners in the future."

Colonel-General Valery Manilov, First Deputy Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, September 4: "[This is] a false-bottomed suitcase. ... The US President is saving face politically by placing the decision on the future Administration's shoulders while saying that the decision will be taken regardless of the Russian position... Clinton says Russia must be persuaded of the necessity to modify [the ABM Treaty] in connection with threats of missile strikes from so-called rogue states... Any such threat should be removed only by political, not by military, means..."

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, September 1: "The decision...to continue testing and development of a limited national missile defence system, while reserving judgment on eventual deployment, appears to be a prudent course of action that balances the many factors involved in this issue..."

Canadian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Michael O'Shaughnessy, September 1: "We are gratified that, among other things, the President has taken into account the concerns of US allies and the potential risk for global strategic stability in not committing at this time to proceed with deployment..."

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, September 1: "[This is a] wise and reasonable [move]... [We] have often had occasion to express our doubts about this issue... The consequences of such a project should be considered very carefully..."

German Government spokesperson Bela Anda, September 1: "[This is a] wise decision... The Government's reservations about this project are well known."

UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, September 1: "We look forward to continuing dialogue on this subject with the current US Administration, and in due course with its successor and with our NATO allies and others..."

Unnamed UK Foreign Office spokesperson, September 1: "We think the way forward is to consult and talk, rather than the US going forward on its own. We've also always said we'd like to see the ABM Treaty preserved."

Reports: US discusses missile shield in Greenland, Reuters, August 22; Greenland says Russians must have say on US missile shield, Agence France Presse, August 24; Missile defense splits Administration, Reuters, August 30; Relief in Europe at US delay on missile shield, Reuters, September 1; Leaders relieved at missile news, Associated Press, September 1; Press briefing by National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger, The White House, September 1; Clinton avoids defense decision, Associated Press, September 2; Reply by Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to a question out by correspondents, Russian Foreign Ministry, September 2; Putin backs Clinton on arms, differences remain, Reuters, September 3; World leaders hail Clinton's missile decision, USA Today, September 3; Russian General says Clinton bluffing on arms, Reuters, September 4; Spokesman on President Clinton's decision not to deploy NMD for the time being, Chinese Foreign Ministry, September 4; Next missile defense test in January, Associated Press, September 5; Next missile defense test in Jan., Associated Press, September 5; Remarks by President Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin in photo opportunity, The White House, September 6; Transcript - Talbott briefing on Clinton-Putin meeting in New York, US State Department (Washington File), September 6; Putin, Clinton still divided, Associated Press, September 6; Chief defends missile defense, Associated Press, September 9; FBI probing TRW in missile shield, Reuters, September 11.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.