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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 51, October 2000

NMD Debate in Run-Up to US Elections

As of mid-October, the issue of national missile defence (NMD) has only featured to a minor extent in the US Congressional and Presidential election campaigns. The differences in the positions of Vice President Al Gore and Governor George Bush, detailed in recent issues, were set out by advisers to both candidates in interviews published in the September issue of the State Department' Foreign Policy Agenda magazine. According to Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, Senior Coordinating Adviser on foreign policy issues to the Vice President:

"The Democrats and Al Gore are not prepared to rush headlong into a national missile defence that hasn' been proven and tested. ... The Vice President has clearly stated that he believes that the United States faces a missile threat from rogue states, and not only from rogue states but terrorist organizations, and the United States needs to have an effective security deterrent to deal with those threats in the years to come. But he believes that there are four factors that need to be addressed before making a decision on national missile defence. First of all, the technical feasibility... No one knows yet the feasibility of such a programme - whether it...be a land-based system or a Star Wars-based system as the Republicans favour... The second factor is the threat assessment. The third is the effect that a deployment will have on arms control, and our alliance system abroad... The fourth factor is the cost... We' not prepared to do what the Republicans and George Bush favour, which is to arbitrarily decide...to spend $140 billion - which would break the back of our budget - on national missile defence. The threats that they claim...their system is going to face are threats based on a Cold War mentality... But what the Vice President has said is that national missile defence must deal...with the new threats that we face."

According to Ambassador Richard Armitage, a senior adviser on defence and foreign policy issues to the Governor: "Mr. Bush has indicated that he wants to field an effective national missile defence as soon as possible. I think the major difference between ourselves and the Democrats is in the true desire for the system. Mr. Bush wants a missile defence system to protect our citizens. The Democrats, we feel, are doing the absolute minimum to assuage the Congress and the American public without doing anything really meaningful toward the creation of such a system. ... [R]egarding the NMD and our allies, my first suggestion would be to change the terminology from national missile defence to allied missile defence. I think if we made very clear that what protects us can in large measure protect our allies, then there might be a little different view of this."

Evidence of public opinion on NMD is contradictory. On October 13, a Reuters/Zogby poll showed 47.4% of 1,002 respondents in favour of building "a limited defence system that would provide America with some level of protection, but would abide by the...Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty", and 38.4% in favour of "an expansive missile defence system of land-, sea- and space-based weapons." However, on October 17 another Reuters/Zogby poll showed 48.2% of 1,002 respondents in agreement with Governor Bush' position that "we should not worry about a treaty that is no longer in effect" - an incorrect assertion by the pollsters - and 37.5% in agreement with the Vice President' preference for a limited system that abides by the treaty.

From the perspective of the Russian government, the changes currently being sought by the Clinton Administration to the ABM Treaty are regarded as tantamount to a negotiation of a successor accord. The US side maintains that Russia has agreed to discuss changes to the Treaty, and indeed must do so if talks on a START III Treaty are to proceed. On October 12, responding to a recent US statement issued in Geneva, the Russian Foreign Ministry took strong exception to this interpretation:

"The US delegation at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has circulated a document (CD/1625) which asserts, in particular, that the June 4, 2000 Moscow Joint Statement by the Russian and US Presidents on ' of Strategic Stability' contains a provision by which the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, missiles, and missile technologies, should be addressed and resolved including by way of considering the question of amending the ABM Treaty. We consider it necessary to draw attention to the fact that there is no such provision in the Joint Statement, nor in any other joint document adopted by the Russian and US Presidents... The American side knows very well that Russia has not conducted any talks with the United States on changing the ABM Treaty so as to adapt it to an American national missile defence system, nor is conducting or intends to conduct [such talks]... Such adaptation is altogether impossible: the central provision of the ABM Treaty is a ban on the deployment by either party of ABM systems for a defence of the territory of its country... [A]ny modification of this provision would deprive the Treaty of its very subject. ... The distortion of the documents adopted by the Presidents of the two countries - [a distortion] we would like to hope [is] unintentional - does not serve constructive aims. We call on the United States to concentrate on...positive work on safeguarding international security and strategic stability while preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as provided by the joint statements of the Russian and US Presidents."

Meanwhile, the US Defense Department has been keen to stress that President Clinton' September 1 deferral of a decision on NMD deployment was not acting to constrain ongoing development and testing, which, in the words of Pentagon spokesperson Kenneth Bacon on September 28, "continues apace" - "We are on our normal schedule to continue development of a national missile defence system." Bacon also told reporters that two non-intercept test flights had been conducted that day. While results were not yet available, Bacon could reveal that the "first flight was designed to test the radar' ability to discriminate among objects in space," and the second to test "some of the components" of the next, full intercept-test (Integrated Test 6), scheduled for "some time early next year." The September 28 tests involved the firing of two Minuteman III missiles from Vandenberg Air Force base in California towards Kwajalein Island in the Pacific.

Speaking to business leaders in Chicago on September 26, Defense Secretary William Cohen candidly set out the Administration' case for seeking both NMD and a healthy arms control environment: "[F]rom a military point of view, it' much easier to overwhelm a defensive system just by proliferating the numbers of missiles. So what you really want to do is construct a missile defence system in the context of having arms control so that you' have a reduction in the number of missiles rather than a proliferation of them..."

Cohen also stressed the technical importance of an international infrastructure - specifically, X-band radar facilities at Fylingdales in the UK and Thule in Greenland - in supporting any US system: "[I]n terms of having a national missile defence system, we...have to take into account the concerns of our allies. We cannot have a...system unless we have forward-deployed X-band radars. You can have all the interceptor missiles in the world...but if you don' have forward-deployed radars, you can' see them coming." On September 18, in an interview with The New York Times, Jonathan Motzfeldt, the Premier of Greenland' Home Rule Parliament, stated that "no one in Greenland wishes to take actions that would lead to recreating the atmosphere of the Cold War era... I am content that NATO has not greeted the NMD plans with cheers... The United States is very much alone in the project." While Greenland is bound by Danish foreign policy, the government in Copenhagen has also expressed reservations about US plans. According to the Danish High Commissioner in Greenland, Gunnar Martens, speaking on September 18, any use of the Thule facility "should be in accordance with the ABM Treaty" and "should live up to international obligations between the United States and Russia."

Reports: Greenlanders wary of a new role in US defenses, New York Times, September 18; Defense Department Report - NMD testing continuing, US State Department (Washington File), September 25; Cohen stresses need for national missile defense in context of arms control, US State Department (Washington File), September 26; Interview - Ginsberg says Gore won' rush unproven missile defense system, US State Department (Washington File), September 27; Interview - Armitage says Bush wants missile defense system swiftly, US State Department (Washington File), September 27; US conducts anti-missile tests over Pacific,, Reuters, September 28; Russian Foreign Ministry Statement, Document 1063-12-10-2000, October 12; Foreign Ministry denies Russia ready to change ABM Treaty, Interfax, October 12; More Americans back limited defense system, Reuters, October 13; Bush' Star Wars anti-ballistic shield favored, Reuters, October 17.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.