Senate Committee Approves NMD Bill Mandating Deployment By End of 2003

Craig Cerniello

ON APRIL 24, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved by a vote of 108, along party lines, the "National Missile Defense Act of 1997" (S. 7), a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) that would require the United States to deploy a national missile defense (NMD) system by the end of 2003. (See ACT, January/February 1997 .) The Senate is unlikely to take up the bill before the end of May.

In the committee's report, the 10 Republican senators make the case for such a system. They argue that the Clinton administration's refusal to commit to the deployment of an NMD system at this time is a mistake because the United States currently faces longrange ballistic missile threats from Russia and China, and that ICBM threats from other countries (for example, North Korea) are likely to emerge "within the coming years." In this context, the senators claim that it is necessary to specify now a firm deployment date for an NMD system, as S.7 does, in order to "provide focus and establish a sense of priority and urgency." They also reject the argument that deployment of an NMD system "will undermine offensive arms control or stability."

The committee's eight Democratic senators sharply disagree with these views. In their dissent, they base their opposition on the fact that S. 7 "commits the United States to deploy a national missile defense system by 2003 before we know the cost of such a system; before we know whether the system would work effectively; and before we know whether deployment of such a system would jeopardize our current and future nuclear arms reductions, or what the nature of the threat will be at the time of deployment."

Recognizing that the nature of the ballistic missile threat to U.S. territory is a crucial factor in any NMD deployment decision, the Democrats point out that the intelligence community has already judged the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch from Russia or China to be "remote." They also challenge the credibility of the potential North Korean ICBM program in light of Pyongyang's deep economic troubles.

In addition, the Democratic senators have expressed their strong concern that S.7 will jeopardize the viability of the ABM Treaty upon which rests the U.S.Russian strategic offensive arms reduction process. S.7 urges the president to pursue, if necessary, highlevel discussions with the Russians to amend the ABM Treaty to permit NMD deployment; and, if such an agreement has not been reached within one year of its enactment, the bill directs the United States to consider withdrawing from the treaty.

Another key concern voiced by the Democrats is the lack of a cost estimate accompanying the legislation. In an April 24 letter to Senator Strom Thurmond (RSC), Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director June O'Neill said her agency could not provide a cost estimate of S.7 because the bill's definition of a "limited ballistic missile attack" is drawn from a classified document, making it difficult for the CBO to provide an unclassified assessment. A CBO cost estimate was critical in last year's debate on the "Defend America Act" (a more elaborate version of S. 7), and ultimately persuaded the House to remove the legislation from floor consideration. (See ACT, May/June 1996.)

The committee's report also contains the Clinton administration's position on S.7. In an April 23 letter to Thurmond, the general counsel of the Defense Department, Judith Miller, said S.7 would divert resources from more pressing military needs and "result in a less effective defense when and if a threat does emerge." According to Miller, "by mandating [NMD] deployment and a oneyear deadline in which to achieve negotiated changes to the ABM Treaty, S.7 could be interpreted by the Russians as putting the United States on a path toward abrogating the ABM Treaty, thus putting at risk continued Russian implementation of the START I Treaty and Russian ratification of START II." The treaties, when fully implemented, will reduce the number of deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads by more than twothirds from Cold War levels.