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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 25, April 1998

Missile Defence Developments

On 21 April, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted (10-7) to recommend to the full Senate legislation - the American Missile Protection Act 1998 (S. 1873) - which would instruct the Administration "to deploy as soon as it is technologically possible an effective national missile defense [NMD] system" to protect the entire United States against ballistic missile attack. The legislation - which does not emulate similar legislation proposed in recent years in setting a date for the deployment of NMD systems - claims that "[t]he clear trend among countries hostile to the United States is toward having ballistic missiles of greater range", and further asserts that "Russia and China have provided significant technical assistance to rogue nation ballistic missile programs, accelerating the pace of those efforts."

No date has been set for Senate consideration of the bill. Comparable legislation in 1997 was not allotted debating time.

The proposed legislation is vehemently opposed by the Administration. On 21 April, the Defense Secretary, former Republican Senator William Cohen, wrote to the Chair of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Strom Thurmond (Republican - South Carolina), arguing that to deploy an NMD system as soon as technologically feasible in advance of a full and systematic threat assessment "could lead to the deployment of an inferior system less capable of defending the American people if and when a threat emerges."

The Administration is currently testing a number of ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems as part of its '3+3' programme, envisaged three years of research, development and testing (1997-2000), with decisions on the requirement for, and composition of, an initial NMD system to be taken over the next three years, opening the door to actual deployment as early as 2003. Testifying before the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on National Security on 1 April, Air Force Lieutenant General Lester Lyles, Director of the Department of Defense's ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), stressed that: "If in 2000 the threat assessment does not warrant a decision to deploy, improvements in the NMD system component technologies will continue, while the ability to deploy a system within three years of a decision is maintained..."

Lyles listed to the subcommittee a number of delays in the testing programmes of key systems. These delays, he stated, were taking place for all the right reasons:

"While I will admit that I do not want to see any further delays in the PAC-3, Navy Area, THAAD [Theater High-Altitude Area Defense] or Navy Theater Wide programs, I am encouraged that these most recent test delays are the result of strong quality control checks and procedures... Frankly, I would rather see a flight test delayed because an astute engineer or technician questions the reliability of a component during a pre-flight review, than see a flight take place and fail because of faulty quality control processes."

The day before Lyles' testimony, the House of Representatives approved - by voice vote - an additional $147 of spending to improve US missile defenses in the Persian Gulf region, in particular against possible attack by Iran, with the bulk of the money ($95 million) to be dedicated to enhancing the performance, and increasing the production, of the Patriot missile.

Reports: House OKs $147m for missile defense, Associated Press, 30 March; House OKs defenses against Iran, United Press International, 30 March; Improved testing delays US ABM programmes, Jane's Rockets & Missiles, 1 April; BMDO chief Lyles warns of funding woes ahead, Defense Daily, 19 April; Senate Panel votes to report NMD bill, Defense Daily, 22 April; Shelton, Cohen oppose National Missile Defense Bill, Defense Daily, 27 April.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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