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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Ballistic Missile Defense: Is the U.S. 'Rushing to Failure'?
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April 1998

By John Pike

In the 15 years since President Ronald Reagan's March 23, 1983 speech inaugurating the Strategic Defense Initiative, the $40 billion to $50 billion spent on ballistic missile defense (BMD) has produced surprisingly modest results. But missile defense program managers and proponents remain hopeful that 1998 will finally mark a turning point in demonstrating the technical maturity of an array of theater missile defense (TMD) and national missile defense (NMD) interceptor programs.

The sharp political controversies that were once the hallmark of the missile defense debate have become increasingly, though not entirely, muted in recent years. Following the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which added $2.3 billion to NMD and generally supported the administration's TMD efforts, President Clinton increased the funding of several programs that had long been congressional favorites. And subsequently Congress, bowing to engineering "facts of life," dropped the overly ambitious deployment schedules mandated in the Ballistic Missile Defense Act of 1995.

This political convergence, however, has not reduced the technical challenge of demonstrating the combat readiness of missile defenses. Over the past several years, the flagship Army and Navy high-altitude interceptor programs have been unblemished by success, failing to hit their intended targets with a consistency that has surprised even long-time skeptics. The Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, the most advanced of the TMD systems under development, has yet to achieve an intercept. An ambitious series of tests during 1998 is intended to put these and related programs back on track toward deployment, but other challenges remain.

In almost every program, important acquisition decisions will be made in advance of extensive testing. Such "buy before you fly" practices have traditionally led to expensive and time-consuming fixes of problems revealed in subsequent testing, and there is little reason for optimism that missile defense will prove exceptional in this regard. In some cases, program plans call for rather large numbers of tests to be conducted in rather short periods of time. Such ambitious test schedules surely contributed to the recent strings of failures, and may be a formula for future failures. Other programs envision surprisingly modest test efforts, in contrast to prior practice. The U.S. Safeguard ABM system, for example, began its brief operational existence in April 1975 after a total of 111 interceptor test flights, including 58 successful target intercepts in 70 attempts. Today, the Clinton administration proposes to decide on the deployment of an NMD system after only three intercept tests. Other programs envision only modestly more ambitious test programs before committing these weapons to the field.

Responding to these concerns, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) formed a study group, composed of senior technologists and headed by retired Air Force General Larry Welch, to evaluate the risks in the current flight test programs of four U.S. "hit-to-kill" systems (designed to intercept by collision) and apply the lessons to NMD efforts.The conclusions of the "Welch Report," as it's known, released in February 1998, were encapsulated in the observation that programs to date were characterized by a "rush to failure." Under political pressure to quickly deploy new systems, managers had increased technical risk and reduced testing, with the paradoxical result of delays in achieving operational capabilities. Released weeks before a major new NMD contract award, the report cautioned that NMD plans appeared to contemplate a continued "rush to failure." The lessons drawn by the Welch Report have yet to be reflected in program plans, and currently envisioned testing programs will provide little assurance that these systems will in fact meet their intended performance requirements.

 

The Arms Control Context

The current shaky technological foundation of the U.S. missile defense development effort stands in marked contrast to the expansive vistas recently opened by the September 1997 signing by the United States and Russia of a number of documents related to the 1972 ABM Treaty. While critics of this treaty charge that missile defense efforts are hobbled by arms control, the reality is that it will be years before the TMD programs under development will mature to fill the rather large shoes that are now to be permitted under the accord.

In the fall of 1997, the Clinton administration finally realized the long-standing policy objective of accommodating the provisions of the ABM Treaty to the needs of U.S. missile defense program plans. The Reagan administration had failed in its frontal assault on the ABM Treaty through its so-called "broad interpretation," which asserted that the treaty simply did not apply to "exotic" systems such as space-based lasers. The Bush administration sought but failed to engage Moscow—both the Soviet Union and, after its dissolution, Russia—in a process of renegotiating the treaty.

When the ABM Treaty was originally negotiated, it differentiated between strategic ABM systems, which were subject to the treaty's limitations, and other systems such as air defense and tactical missile defense, which were not limited except to the extent needed to ensure that such systems did not, in fact, have "strategic" capabilities. In response to questions during the Senate ratification hearings on the treaty, a representative of the Nixon administration unilaterally defined the demarcation between strategic and non-strategic systems by stating that systems tested against targets with velocities below 2 kilometers per second or at altitudes below 40 kilometers would be compliant with the treaty, and those tested against targets with velocities between 2 and 4 kilometers per second would be subject to a compliance review by U.S. authorities as to whether they were tested "in an ABM mode." The September 1997 accords, not yet approved by the Senate or the Russia parliament, formally establish a new demarcation line between prohibited strategic defense systems and permitted TMD systems.

By mid-1996, negotiations in the treaty's Standing Consultative Commission had produced a preliminary phase-one demarcation agreement covering lower-velocity TMD systems (those with missile interceptor speeds of 3 kilometers per second or less). The more difficult phase-two agreement on "higher-velocity" TMD systems (those with interceptor speeds above 3 kilometers per second) was resolved in September 1997 following the March 1997 Helsinki summit. The sole current U.S. higher-velocity TMD system is the Navy's Theater-Wide Defense (NTWD)—formerly known as Navy Upper-Tier; all other TMD systems have lower interceptor speeds and are covered by the phase-one agreement. The Clinton administration has agreed to submit these agreements, as well as the "multilateralization" agreement for the ABM Treaty, for Senate approval after Russia ratifies START II.

Under the provisions of the lower-velocity agreement, TMD systems can be tested and deployed with any architecture, except space-based interceptors, provided the interceptor is not tested against a target missile with a velocity greater than 5 kilometers per second or a range greater than 3,500 kilometers. Under the phase-two agreement, higher-velocity TMD systems are subject to the same test standards. And in both cases, the development, testing or deployment of space-based TMD interceptors or of space-based components based on "other physical principles" that are capable of substituting for such missiles are also prohibited. Beyond these restrictions, the determination of a TMD system's compliance with the ABM Treaty is a unilateral national responsibility. The Clinton administration has determined that all U.S. TMD systems now under development are compliant with the provisions of the demarcation accords and has certified this compliance to Congress.

 

The BMD Roster

U.S. BMD programs, which will consume nearly $3.7 billion in fiscal year (FY) 1998 (with TMD expenditures roughly twice those for NMD), include an array of systems—the majority of which are still under development. In FY 1997, nearly 93 percent of BMDO's budget was devoted to research, development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E) activities, while just over 7 percent was spent on actual procurement. The following systems comprise the core elements of current U.S. BMD efforts.

HAWK: The Marine Corps' Homing All-the Way Killer (HAWK) system, was first fielded during the 1960s to provide medium-range, low- and medium-altitude air defense against aircraft and helicopters. The system, which incorporates an explosive warhead with a proximity fuse, is deployed in batteries of three or four launchers with three missiles each. The associated Raytheon-built radar set for HAWK has been modified to enable it to detect and track tactical ballistic missiles at long ranges and high altitudes, and missile upgrades include an improved fuze and warhead. In September 1994, the upgraded system was successfully tested against two Lance target missiles at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Initial production of the latest radar modification kit began in 1997, with installation of the kits scheduled to begin this year and to be completed in 1999. Some 300 HAWK "Improved Lethality Missiles" were transferred from the Army to the Marine Corps, and another 700 of these modification kits were installed by the end of 1997, approximately one year later than originally planned. Program delays were attributable to a protest by a Pentagon contractor, which delayed the award of the modification kit contract, and to changes to the HAWK testing schedule, which slipped operational testing of the new system to the end of FY 1996. In FY 1997, HAWK accounted for less than 6 percent of BMDO's procurement budget.

Patriot: Although initially intended primarily as an anti-aircraft interceptor, in July 1988 the Patriot system, built by Lockheed Martin, was modified to provide a limited anti-ballistic missile capability under the Patriot Advanced Capability-1 (PAC-1) program. During the 1991 Gulf War, the improved PAC-2 system was employed with disappointing results. Subsequently, a series of improvements were initiated resulting in a variety of upgrades under a rather confusing nomenclature covering both interceptor missiles and the overall system. For example, in 1995 the PAC-3 Configuration 1 Air and Missile Defense System was fielded with PAC-2.

The PAC-2 Guidance Enhanced Missile (GEM) corrected some of the shortcomings identified with the PAC-2 missiles used during the Gulf War. These radar-guided systems incorporate improved versions of the PAC-2 explosive warheads, which are detonated near their targets by proximity fuses. The GEM configuration was successfully tested against a ballistic missile target in February 1997, and some 345 PAC-2 GEM missiles have now been deployed. The PAC-3 Configuration 2 system, using both PAC-2 and GEM interceptors, incorporates modifications to the Patriot radar and communications, a remote launch capability, and other system improvements.

The PAC-3 Configuration 3 is an entirely new missile, derived from the Extended Range Interceptor (ERINT) missile, which is intended to counter theater-class ballistic missile threats using a hit-to-kill interceptor. PAC-3 is derived from technology demonstrated in the mid-1980s—based on the Flexible Lightweight Agile Guidance Experiment, or FLAGE—and from three successful ERINT tests in November 1993. The first Guidance Test Flight for PAC-3 is scheduled for late 1998. Envisioned to operate as the lower tier of the Army's TMD architecture, the PAC-3 is fired from the same launcher as earlier versions of Patriot, although eight of the smaller PAC-3 missiles are carried in each firing unit, versus four each of the earlier versions.

In its FY 1997 budget request, the Defense Department added about $230 million for the PAC-3 through the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) and extended the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase of the program by 10 months. PAC-3 low-rate initial production (LRIP) is slated to begin in early 1998, with the First Unit Equipped (FUE) deployment of 16 missiles and five radars in one battalion planned for the end of FY 1999. Although BMDO originally planned to deploy nine Patriot battalions, current plans call for six battalions with a total of 1,200 missiles. (In early 1996, the Defense Department decided to allocate three battalions to the Medium Extended Air Defense Systems, or MEADS, program.) The current estimated cost for Patriot deployment is $7.4 billion.

Navy Area Defense: The Navy Area Defense (NAD) enhancement to the Standard Missile air defense system carried by Aegis radar-equipped ships is intended to provide a tactical missile defense capability comparable to that provided by PAC-3. First introduced over a decade ago, this widely deployed anti-aircraft system consists of SM-1 (medium range) and SM-2 (extended range) missiles. The system is a product of the Standard Missile Company, a joint venture of Raytheon and Hughes.

Previously referred to as Navy Lower Tier, the NAD interceptor supplements target tracking data from the powerful Aegis SPY-1 air- and missile-defense radar with new infrared and radio-frequency adjunct terminal guidance sensors. Using a blast fragmentation warhead to destroy missile targets, the modified SM-2 Block IVA missiles will be deployed on Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers which carry over 5,000 vertical launch system cells that can be used for TMD interceptors. The Navy plans to buy 1,500 SM-2 Block IVA missiles to equip 57 destroyers and 22 cruisers for TMD missions by 2011. The total cost of the program is currently estimated at $8.98 billion, including $2.05 billion for development, $4.18 billion for procurement, and $2.76 billion for operation and support.

A January 1996 program restructuring caused by flight test delays threatened to set the program's schedule back by at least a year, but the Defense Department added about $120 million to the FY 1997 program budget to pay for the delays in risk-reduction flights and increased costs associated with test targets and lethality evaluation efforts. This increased funding kept the program on schedule, with a User Operational Evaluation System (UOES) capability (for limited contingency operations) of 35 missiles on the USS Lake Erie (CG-70) and the USS Port Royal (CG-73) by September 1999, with the FUE initial operational capability set for the fourth quarter of FY 2001.

The program experienced a 14-month schedule slippage due to problems in the two flight tests conducted prior to the start of engineering and manufacturing development in February 1997. In January 1997, however, the Navy demonstrated the TMD capability of the SM-2 Block IVA missile with a successful intercept of a ballistic missile target at the White Sands Missile Range. The Navy plans to begin LRIP of the missiles in June 2000, five months before developmental and operational tests are scheduled to begin. These tests are slated to include a total of 32 intercept attempts between November 2000 and March 2001.

MEADS: Formerly known as CorpSAM, MEADS is an international effort to develop a replacement for the widely deployed HAWK anti-aircraft system. This highly mobile system, to be deployed with forward-deployed and maneuvering ground forces, is intended to provide omni-directional coverage against the full range of air-breathing threats—both aircraft and cruise missiles. The United States, Germany and Italy are partners in MEADS, following a decision in early 1995 by France to withdraw from the program.

In October 1995, the Army selected Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems, Inc. and H&R Company (a joint venture between Hughes Aircraft and Raytheon Company) as the U.S. contractors. Each U.S. team is paired with a European team, creating two equal trans-Atlantic industrial entities in competition for the system. In June 1996, the charter for the NATO MEADS Design and Development, Production and Logistics Management Organization (NAMEADSMO) was approved. The associated NATO MEADS Management Agency (NAMEADSMA) is responsible for the accomplishment of the project definition-validation phase, which will lay the groundwork for a decision to enter development in late FY 1998 or early FY 1999. Under the current schedule, MEADS is slated to become operational in 2005.

THAAD: THAAD is intended to provide extended TMD coverage, engaging incoming ballistic missile at ranges of up to several hundred kilometers, versus the tens of kilometers provided by the previously discussed systems. This hit-to-kill interceptor could thus provide multiple engagement opportunities against missiles with ranges of hundreds of kilometers, and enhanced capabilities against future threats from missiles which might have ranges of thousands of kilometers. THAAD missiles are intended to actually collide with the target ballistic missile, rather than destroying it by exploding nearby, as fragmentation warheads do. Final guidance to the target is provided by an infrared seeker on the kill vehicle. The interception of a hostile ballistic missile is intended to occur outside the Earth's atmosphere or high in the atmosphere. The range of the THAAD system is to be approximately 200 kilometers horizontally and 150 kilometers vertically.

BMDO's original FY 1998 budget request included $556.1 million for THAAD, but following an analysis of the program during the 1997 QDR, the Defense Department submitted an amended budget request of only $353.4 million. The final FY 1998 defense authorization bill allocated some $406.1 million for THAAD. When the THAAD program was initiated in 1992, its deployment was planned for the mid-1990s. By 1996, the schedule delayed fielding an operational system from FY 2002 until FY 2006, while increasing total system costs from by $1.1 billion, to $17.9 billion. The FY 1998 budget request accelerated fielding to FY 2004 by adding $722 million for FY 1998 through FY 2003. A total of 1,178 interceptors are planned for the operational force, with each THAAD battery including nine launchers and 150 missiles. The program currently envisions entering the EMD phase in 1999, following the completion of three successful intercepts.

In order to provide an emergency capability to counter a small number of missiles, current plans call for a THAAD UOES capability of two radars, four launchers, two battle management and command and control systems, and 40 missiles to be available in 1999. Apart from the missiles, all these components were acquired for demonstration and validation testing and will be refurbished for the UOES system. The option to purchase the UOES missiles would be exercised following the first successful intercept of a target missile, which had not occurred by the end of April 1998.

The first three THAAD flight tests, which did not attempt target intercepts, demonstrated basic missile functions. The subsequent four tests were also very successful in every aspect except the very critical end-game— intercepting the target. Following the fourth test failure in March 1997, an extensive program review was initiated, with additional intercept attempts planned for 1998. Prior to the March 1997 test, the number of test flights planned as the basis for entering the EMD phase was reduced from 20 to nine flights to stay on schedule. But the delays imposed by the test failures appear to have resulted in THAAD's initial operational capability once again slipping from 2004 to 2006.

Navy Theater-Wide Defense: Based on Aegis-equipped ships, the NTWD long-range interceptor system will provide wide area coverage against a broad spectrum of threats, including ascent-phase intercepts where the ship's mobility permits such engagements. Although the program has thus far focused on using the Lightweight Exo-Atmospheric Projectile (LEAP) hit-to-kill interceptor, derived from the Bush-era Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor program, other intercept systems are also under study. The program was restructured in the BMD program review of early 1996 to focus on an Aegis-LEAP system level intercept demonstration; kinetic warhead and discrimination technology assessments; concept definition studies; and system engineering efforts.

With cuing data from satellite sensors, LEAP kill vehicles could engage targets at altitudes above 100 kilometers—enabling coverage of an area encompassing several hundred kilometers—when launched by the SM-2 Block IVA missile. However, tests to date have failed to intercept targets. A series of four control test vehicle flights are slated for 1998 and 1999, leading to the first intercept attempt in mid-2000.

Following President Clinton's FY 1997 budget request, the Defense Department provided additional funds for FYs 1998-2001 to increase testing and conduct more in-depth risk reduction. The FY 1998 budget request of $194.9 million was increased by $150 million at the initiative of the House of Representatives (the Senate had initially called for an increase of $80 million). Under current plans, NTWD is slated for an initial deployment in 2008.

Ground-Based Interceptor: The Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI), the weapon element of the currently envisioned NMD system, consists of an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) launched by a fixed, land-based booster. Three options are being examined for the GBI booster: the Minuteman III ICBM; a combinations of other existing solid-rocket systems; and an entirely new booster.

The EKV has a sensitive, long-range electro-optical infrared seeker which allows the vehicle to acquire and track targets, and to discriminate between the intended target reentry vehicle and other objects such as missile fragments or warhead decoys. This capability enables the GBI to be launched against a cluster of objects and subsequently identify and intercept the targeted reentry vehicle. The EKV would also receive one or more in-flight target updates from other ground- and space-based sensors, increasing the probability of intercepting the target. Based on this received data and its own sensors, the EKV uses small on-board rockets to maneuver so as to collide with the target, with both demolished in the high-speed collision.

Competing EKV designs will be evaluated in a series of test flights in 1998 and 1999. Hughes and Boeing are under contract to deliver sensors for flight tests. EKV sensor flight tests in May 1997 (Boeing) and January 1998 (Hughes) demonstrated seeker operations against targets, though no intercepts were attempted. These tests are to be followed by EKV intercept flight tests in May 1998 (Boeing) and January 1999 (Hughes). On April 30, 1998, BMDO selected Boeing as the lead systems integrator (LSI) for the NMD program, responsible for the coordination of all system components, including an integrated flight test set for late 1999. By 2000, further flight tests will seek to demonstrate interoperability between the EKV and various supporting sensors.

In a parallel effort, the Advanced Interceptor Technology (AIT) program continues the EKV work initiated under the Brilliant Pebbles program, as well as related endo-atmospheric hyper-velocity kill vehicle efforts. The Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP) provides support to agencies using excess Minuteman ICBMs. Congress has added money to the Defense Department [FY 1998?] budget request to pay for two AIT hit-to-kill interceptor flight tests in 1998. Launched using RSLP missiles, these flights may use the experimental Advanced Solid Axial Stage upper stage.

These NMD systems are being tested under the Clinton administration's so-called "3-plus-3" deployment program, which calls for a three-year development and planning phase (from 1996 to 1999) that could be followed by a decision—if merited by the existing ballistic missile threat—to build and deploy an NMD system with an initial operational capability in 2003. However, if the threat is not judged to warrant deployment, the "3-plus-3" program would preserve the option to deploy an NMD system within three years of a decision to do so through continued development and testing of system elements.

Airborne Laser: The Air Force Airborne Laser (ABL) program plans to develop and deploy a chemical laser system, mounted on Boeing 747-400 aircraft, to intercept theater missiles during their boost phase. Although based on demonstrated technology, major improvements in performance will be required prior to the full-scale system's first intercept attempt scheduled for FY 2002. The magnitude of these improvements is indicated by the $1.3 billion budgeted for program definition and risk reduction, and the $1.2 billion budgeted for the program's EMD phase. The Air Force hopes to achieve an initial operational capability in 2006 and have a seven-aircraft fleet in service by 2008, around the time the competing Army and Navy upper-tier programs are slated to become operational. The Air Force estimates the life-cycle cost of the ABL program to be about $11 billion, which includes $4.9 billion for 20 years of operations and support.

Although a 1996 Defense Science Board report termed ABL a high-risk program and recommended focusing on kinetic-energy, air-launched boost-phase interceptors, current priorities are otherwise. BMDO is conducting studies, along with Israel, of a kinetic-energy boost-phase interceptor that would be launched from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The roughly $10 million annual budget of this program is intended to provide a fallback in the event of problems with the ABL. In addition to the serious technological obstacles facing the ABL program, U.S. policy-makers have yet to address compliance questions arising from the ABM Treaty, which bans the development, testing or deployment of, among other systems, air-based ABM systems and their components.

Space-Based Laser: The program that put the Star Wars in Star Wars, the space-based chemical laser, has enjoyed a renaissance with the advent of the Republican congressional majority. Initiated by the Carter administration in response to inflated concerns about Soviet directed-energy weapons programs, the space-based laser was the hallmark of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative program. Reduced in scope but not canceled by the Clinton administration, in recent years the program has at last reached the end of its technological tether, having exhausted the possibilities of ground-based testing.

Perhaps not unmindful of promises made to Senator Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MI) that new laser facilities might be constructed in Mississippi, Congress increased the administration's modest FY 1998 budget request of $28.9 million to $126.9 million. The money was a down payment for the launch and orbital testing of a space-based laser Readiness Demonstrator in FY 2005. How militarily meaningful tests could be conducted in compliance with the ABM Treaty's restrictions on space-based BMD systems, which were extended in the September 1997 demarcation agreements, remains unclear.

 

Prospects and Problems

While these various interceptor systems typically receive the most public and political attention, and despite their myriad problems, they are actually not the most technically challenging element of a theater or national missile defense system. The dismal performance of Patriot during the Gulf War remains a widely under-appreciated reminder that sensors and battle-management systems are the more complex, and less reliable, system elements. Development and testing of ground-based and space-based sensors and their associated battle-management systems continues apace, though there is little prospect of realistic testing that would provide high confidence that these crucial components will perform as advertised.

Performance problems notwithstanding, there is little reason to anticipate that the Army's THAAD will face anything other than programmatic restructuring and shifting schedules and funding profiles until Lockheed Martin eventually manages to build something that can hit a few targets in a few tests. The Army is too heavily invested in THAAD to allow the program to be canceled, and Lockheed Martin is too heavily involved and too influential to allow the program to be radically restructured. Recalling the extraordinarily protracted development effort required for the initial air-defense version of Patriot, all parties are likely to persevere even in the face of what to date has been an extraordinarily troubled program.

As with THAAD, the Navy Theater Wide Defense and the Air Force Airborne Laser programs retain strong, high-level institutional support, and absent profound technological or programmatic challenges seem destined to remain under active development. The fact that the Navy program provides capabilities that largely duplicate those of THAAD, and the fact that the Airborne Laser purports to provide an even more robust capability, have thus far engendered little inter-service rivalry that might lead to one or more systems being canceled.

The unfortunate MEADS program seems destined for oblivion. With so many other programs competing for not entirely unlimited funding, with no clear corporate or service champion, and with operational characteristics not readily differentiated from Patriot, MEADS has garnered only limited international interest and is no longer included in the administration's Future Years Defense Program.

The prospects for national missile defense, and its Ground-Based Interceptor, brightened considerably with the recent selection of Boeing as the NMD Lead System Integrator under a $1.6 billion, three-year contract. Official denials notwithstanding, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Lockheed Martin's dismal track record with THAAD contributed to the selection of Boeing for this critical effort leading toward NMD deployment. The award of the contract also compounds the institutional momentum toward NMD deployment, given the not-inconsiderable political clout of Boeing in Congress.

Thus, over the next several years, Congress will be faced with at least two major policy decisions on missile defenses that will be made in the face of profound technical uncertainty. Upon Russian ratification of START II, which may occur in mid-1998 or perhaps much later, the Senate will take up consideration of the demarcation agreements and other refinements to the ABM Treaty recently negotiated by the Clinton administration. And in the closing months of the millennium, the question of national missile defense deployment will also confront Congress. In neither case will decision-making have the luxury of high confidence in the anticipated performance of theater or national missile defense systems, totally apart from the other questions that surround these programs. But these serious operational questions have been increasingly superceded by political calculations.

The Clinton administration will, not surprisingly, seek Senate approval of the ABM Treaty demarcation agreements, and seek to postpone congressional action on NMD deployment until the year 2000. Senate Republicans have articulated a divergent agenda, skeptical of the continued utility of the ABM Treaty, in whatever form, and eager to decide immediately in favor of NMD deployment.

The fate of the ABM Treaty revisions in the Senate remains uncertain, though it may be anticipated that their eventual approval will be secured at the price of concessions on other matters of interest—related or unrelated to the issue—to key senators. The prospects for NMD deployment are even less certain, though not without historical precedent. Three decades ago the Johnson administration, faced with strong congressional support for missile defense and an upcoming election, embarked on the Sentinel ABM program as much to defend against the Republicans as to defend against the Chinese—the avowed threat to which it responded since it could not deal with the much larger Soviet threat. As was demonstrated in the 1996 election-year decision on the B-2 stealth bomber, Clinton-Gore political operatives are capable of altering national security plans to deny an opponent a campaign issue. The increasingly forward leaning rhetorical stance of the Clinton administration toward NMD has progressively reduced its distance from congressional Republicans. And it is not difficult to imagine counsel to the Gore campaign that any ill effects of NMD would be better addressed by President Gore than by citizen Gore.

This is not a message of despair, but of caution. Over the next two years, there will be increasingly irresistible political forces tending toward the deployment of a national missile defense best characterized as "a weapon that does not work against a threat that does not exist." While embracing much of the missile defense agenda, the White House has also modulated ill-considered congressional enthusiasms. And Congress itself has managed at times to refrain from obviously ill-advised adventures. These strengths will be put to the test as the end of the millennium draws near.

 


Notes

1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Report of the Panel On Reducing Risk In Ballistic Missile Defense Flight Test Programs ("Welch Report"), February 27, 1998.Back to origin.

2. Ibid., Welch Report, p. 10.

Back to origin.


John Pike is director of the Space Policy Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC.