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Senate Panel Approves NMD Bill Seeking To Move Up Deployment

April 1998

By Craig Cerniello

On April 21, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved by a party-line vote of 10-7 the "American Missile Protection Act of 1998," setting the stage for what could become a highly contentious debate between the Clinton administration and Congress over national missile defense (NMD) policy. The bill (S. 1873), introduced on March 19 by Senators Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and reintroduced on March 27 by Cochran and 38 co-sponsors, states that it is U.S. policy "to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective [NMD] system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate)."

The commitment in the bill to deploy an NMD system contrasts with the administration's "3+3" program, under which the United States is developing the elements of an NMD system by the year 2000 that can then be deployed three years later if warranted by the ballistic missile threat. If a decision is made in 2000 not to deploy an NMD system, then the United States will continue to develop and refine the elements of the system, always remaining three years away from actual deployment.

Unlike the separate NMD bills introduced in January 1997 by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) (see ACT, January/February 1997), the Cochran bill does not mandate a specific system architecture and is silent on the issue of how the deployed system will affect the ABM Treaty. To date, there are 49 co-sponsors to the Cochran bill.

The Committee Report

In an April 24 Armed Services Committee report, the Republican majority argued that NMD deployment will have a "deterrent" effect on proliferation because it will demonstrate to states seeking to acquire ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction that the pursuit of such capabilities is futile. Moreover, in the event that this deterrent failed, the senators claimed that an NMD system would be able to defend the United States against a limited ballistic misile attack.

As a key justification for NMD deployment, the senators maintained that a long-range ballistic missile threat to the United States currently exists and is growing. They noted that the threat of an unauthorized or accidental launch from China or Russia is "real," albeit unlikely and cited the progress that is being made by certain states, such as North Korea and Iran, in extending the range of their ballistic missiles. The majority also called into question the ability of the intelligence community to accurately predict when states will possess missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory.

Dissenting Opinions

In the report, the seven Democrats attacked S. 1873 on the grounds that it calls for NMD deployment because it is "technologically possible" rather than because a sufficient threat exists. They also criticized the bill for ignoring the costs involved in deploying an NMD system as well as the negative impact that such deployment would have on achieving further nuclear arms reductions with Russia. The seven senators endorsed the administration's "3+3" approach as the preferred program for developing an NMD system.

As for the missile threat, the Democrats pointed to Secretary of Defense William Cohen's 1998 Annual Report to the President and the Congress , in which he stated that with the exception of the North Korean Taepo Dong-2, which is not likely to become operational by 2005, "no country, other than the declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the United States, although outside assistance is a wild card that could shorten time lines to deployment." In response to the charge that the intelligence community is not capable of reliably predicting ballistic missile developments, the minority said those cases identified by the majority involve short- to medium-range ballistic missile systems, not ICBMs. "ICBMs have considerably more indicators of development than these short- or medium-range systems, take considerably longer to develop and test, and are more easily tracked by the Intelligence Community," the Democrats wrote.

As for the legislation's impact on arms control, the Democrats stated that "If we deploy an NMD system that violates the [ABM] Treaty, Russia is likely to withdraw from START I and not ratify START II." These treaties combined are expected to reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads in the U.S. and Russian arsenals by more than two-thirds from Cold War levels.

Administration Responds

Senior administration officials also submitted letters to the Armed Services Committee expressing their opposition to S. 1873. In an April 21 letter to Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Cohen said the Cochran bill would "alter the '3+3' strategy so as to eliminate taking into account the nature of the threat when making a deployment decison. This could lead to the deployment of an inferior system less capable of defending the American people if and when a threat emerges."

In a letter to Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) that same day, General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that the conditions for NMD deployment under the "3+3" plan are more prudent than under S. 1873. In this connection, he said the only criteria for deployment under the Cochran bill is whether the technology is ready, whereas under the administration's plan, the technology must not only be ready but there must also be an identifiable threat that the NMD system is designed to counter.

In addition, Shelton pointed out that under S. 1873 the NMD system must be capable of protecting the "territory" of the United States, while the administration's plan calls for defending just the 50 states. This distinction is important, he explained, because "Expanding performance coverage to include all U.S. territories [such as Guam] would have considerable cost, design, and location implications." Shelton also said "the bill does not consider affordability or the impact a deployment would have on arms control agreements and nuclear arms reductions."

Meanwhile, in a related development, the Defense Department announced on April 30 that it has awarded Boeing North American the Lead System Integrator (LSI) contract for the "3+3" program. The LSI will serve as the prime contractor for the NMD system, thereby having responsibility for its development, integration and, if necessary, deployment. The NMD system, which is currently in the development phase, is scheduled to conduct its first intercept of a ballistic missile target later this year.