National Missile Defense, the ABM Treaty and the Future of START II

Wednesday, January 27, 1999

The Brookings Institution


Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.:

Good morning and welcome to today's press conference, sponsored by the Arms Control Association, on Secretary of Defense Cohen's recent statement on the preparation for deployment of a national missile defense [NMD]. I hope that our discussion will also provide useful background on one aspect of Secretary of State Albright's current trip to Moscow, where she presumably is explaining and blunting the impact of Cohen's statement.

In his statement, Cohen set forth two criteria for a decision to deploy a national missile defense. First was a threat from a rogue state warranting deployment; and second was the availability of the technological capability to sustain a deployment. Adopting the worst-case scenario promulgated by the recent "Rumsfeld Commission" report, he concluded that, regarding the first criterion, the threat exists or will soon exist. So, the decision to deploy will presumably be made as soon as the technology is available. However, recognizing the sorry state of the ballistic missile defense program, Cohen also announced that, while a decision could be made in 2000, the actual deployment date would be deferred five years to 2005.

There was a curious similarity in Cohen's presentation on the subject and the proposals presented by Senator Thad Cochran [R-MS] in legislation he has just reintroduced calling for deployment of a national missile defense as soon as the technology is available. Recognizing that the as-yet-undefined NMD system may well violate the terms of the ABM Treaty, Cohen called on Russia to accept modification of the treaty to bring it into accordance with the still-to-be-determined details of the U.S. system. He went on to say that if the Russians do not cooperate in this, the United States could withdraw from the ABM Treaty.

This most untimely and provocative announcement will have a serious, negative impact on U.S. security by further delaying, or even killing, prospects for Russian ratification of START II. This would delay further reductions in the large remaining Russian nuclear arsenal, which is, after all, the only existing threat to the survival of the United States, as unlikely as such a conflict now appears. I would remind all of us that the ABM Treaty and the SALT/START efforts to control and reduce nuclear arsenals constitute a seamless web, drawing on a phrase from the past. During the Cold War, it was recognized that deployment of ballistic missile defenses would accelerate the arms race since either side would deploy additional offensive strategic forces to ensure the viability of its deterrent, and that this could be done at a small fraction of the cost of the defensive system.

In the post-Cold War world, this relationship has not disappeared. The willingness of both sides to undertake substantial and radical reductions will depend upon their confidence that their residual forces will still provide adequate deterrence, and perceived capabilities of a defense system will certainly inhibit movement in this direction.

The timing of this announcement could not be worse. After years of delay, the Duma finally, in the closing months of last year, moved to ratify START II, and the date was specifically set for the last two weeks of 1998. But I would note that the ratification was going to include, as one of its conditions, that U.S. efforts to circumvent, violate or terminate the ABM Treaty would constitute a basis for Russian withdrawal from START II. At the last moment, the punitive attacks by the U.S. on Iraq infuriated many factions within the Russian Duma. To show their displeasure they postponed without a further date ratification of START II. They did, however, leave it on the agenda, so the possibility remained that they would return to the ratification process in the early months of this year. However, after Secretary Cohen's statements, there was indignation across the political spectrum in Russia, and the Duma called for a re-examination of the ratification of START II.

One comment I would like to make on the Rumsfeld report, which now appears to be driving Cohen's decisions, is that the secretary of defense appears to accept uncritically the worst-case assessment contained in the report, that suggests North Korea, Iran and Iraq can, within five years of a decision, deploy a missile system capable of threatening all 50 states with little or no warning of actual deployment. In short, this capability could be achieved indigenously by these countries without any testing or other clearly visible indicators. The Rumsfeld report also made the implausible suggestion that complete missile systems could be obtained from Russia or China, or lesser-range systems could be deployed in other states closer to the United States.

The intelligence community's first reaction to the Rumsfeld report was to stand by its earlier estimates that such a threat could evolve in 10 to 15 years. Moreover, I would emphasize that, in the most unlikely event these systems really would be developed on this time scale, the rogue states would certainly be deterred from making any actual use of these weapons—which would only be a token attack—by the overwhelming strength of U.S. forces. I think it is a major fallacy to assert that these countries are not affected by deterrence. With regards to posturing and threats about the use of such weapons, I think that these countries would also be strongly deterred, because this could invite a pre-emptive strike on the part of the U.S., which it has demonstrated it is capable of doing.

To Russia and much of the rest of the world, the notion that the United States, the sole remaining superpower, is prepared to spend tens of billions of dollars in order to defend itself against a weak, poverty-stricken nation must seem the height of irrationality. Some in Russia may attribute this strictly to U.S. domestic political considerations, but others clearly perceive that such a U.S. move may have a more sinister implication for them; that is, the United States is actually seeking to provide a base for a future national missile defense system that could prove effective against them in an era of substantial reductions in nuclear capabilities.

If the United States is really this concerned about the North Korean ballistic missile program, we should act promptly to deal with the problem at the source, by buying out or trading out Pyongyang's existing program. The North Koreans have actually already made suggestions that we buy them out and pay for the income they would lose if the program were terminated. I think there are a number of other trades, aside from cash, that one can envisage as part of a broader solution to North Korea's missile program. Now this would not come free, but the costs involved in such a deal could amount to only a few percent of the costs that are going to be involved in the deployment of a national missile defense that will probably be ineffective, if ever deployed. But more importantly, a U.S.-North Korean missile deal would avoid the very serious negative impact, in the perception of Russia, that such a deployment clearly threatens the future of START II and other arms control negotiations to reduce substantially the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals. [Back to intro page, ACT November/December 1998]


John Pike:

My maternal grandfather, John Miller Shores, was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher out in rural northern Alabama, and he kept hounds. Generally those hounds liked to hunt, and generally they were good at it, but every now and again, he would find himself with a hound that really didn't like that sort of activity and just wanted to be a house puppy. The phrase that people who kept hounds used when confronted with such a creature was that that dog won't hunt. And I think that the basic problem that we're confronted with on missile defense today is the problem that we've been confronted with for the last fifteen years, and even for the last four decades or so. This dog won't hunt.

Fifteen intercept test attempts have been conducted since 1982, involving the sort of technology that is envisioned for use in the national missile defense program. That is to say, it is exoatmospheric (above the atmosphere); it's hit to kill, which means that the kill vehicle—the interceptor—is supposed to collide with the incoming warhead and destroy it on impact; and it uses infrared homing, which means that the kill vehicle has a little heat-seeking telescope that tries to get it to the target.

Over the last 17 years we've tried to do this trick on 15 occasions, and on 13 occasions it's failed. We have not done this successfully since 1991. Both of the times that the tests succeeded, the interceptor had a little help. The first time we succeeded, with the Humming/Overway experiment—back in 1984—the target had a heater to make it a lot hotter than it normally would be, so that the heat-seeking telescope on the kill vehicle would be able to home in on it. The second time we actually managed to hit something, the first of the ERIS [exoatmospheric reentry vehicle interception system] series, the kill vehicle was told in advance exactly what the target looked like. So when the kill vehicle was presented with several objects in its field of view, it already knew exactly which one to home in on. Obviously one can't anticipate that the North Koreans, or the Iraqis or whoever, would be so cooperative as to make sure that their nuclear warheads had heaters on them so that they were easier to hit, and I really don't think that they are going to be sending us pictures of their warheads so that we can load them into our interceptors.

The bottom line, if you look at what we have not accomplished over the last 15 years or so, is that this dog won't hunt. It's a great idea, apart from the fact that it simply does not work. Over the last 15 years we have spent $60 billion, which even in Washington terms is real money. We have spent three times as much money as we spent on the Manhattan Project, which did produce workable atomic bombs. About the only thing we've been able to demonstrate over the last 15 years is that this program has an absolutely unique capacity for burning up large amounts of money, without anything ever coming out the other end. There is no other program in American history which has managed to chew up $60 billion with absolutely nothing whatsoever to show for it.

I would suggest that this missile defense problem is a little more difficult than people had hoped. Frankly, this isn't surprising. In Desert Storm the Patriot looked really good on TV. But afterward the Army concluded that in Saudi Arabia the Patriot missed more often than it hit. And over Israel, the Israelis concluded it was possible that Patriot did not succeed in hitting anything at all.

There were complicating reasons why the Patriot did not work so well during Desert Storm. It had software problems, and it had problems telling the real target from the junk of the Scuds falling apart during re-entry.

The tests that we have done thus far on the technology that we would use for national missile defense have not even gotten to the point of encountering the discrimination and software reliability problems that the Patriot encountered in actual combat. The problem we are having now is that the technology is not capable of hitting the side of a barn, which is an issue totally apart from whether the system will be reliable or what it will do in the face of countermeasures.

The other thing that is very important to recall about our operational experience in Desert Storm is that while missile defense did not work very well, deterrence did work very well. Saddam Hussein had poison gas-tipped Scuds that were available for launch at the time of the war, and he did not use them. Subsequently, after the U.S. military interrogated some defectors and some captured Iraqi leaders, it became clear why not: Saddam Hussein did not want to get blown up. Before the war, the United States, Britain, France and Israel had all stated, both publicly and privately, that if he was the first to use weapons of mass destruction, he would not be the last to use weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein and his kindred despots in other countries that we are worried about have not survived for extended periods of time by being stupid or careless. They are ruthless and cruel and sometimes reckless, but they don't remain in power, despite our repeated attempts in the case of Saddam Hussein to dislodge him, by being careless about the survival of their regime. Saddam Hussein understood very well that if he initiated the use of weapons of mass destruction, our retaliation would annihilate his regime.

So the notion that missile defense is the only bulwark we have against weapons of mass destruction attacks from these regimes simply flies in the face of our actual experience, in which deterrence has worked very well and missile defense has not worked very well at all.

It's not simply a problem of the interceptors not working. It's also a problem of the sensors not working. Although this has not received a lot of coverage, the satellite systems that the national missile defense would rely on, which are not part of the $10 billion estimated deployment costs (which were increased to $13 billion in the space of a few days), have also been delayed by a couple of years. Space-based lasers are going to be the follow-on part of the system, and they've also just been delayed by a couple of years. We are really no closer to deploying any of this stuff today than we were nearly 16 years ago when Ronald Reagan first made his famous speech. All of which suggests that, if you look at the record, this problem is a lot more difficult than one might imagine from listening to most of the discussions about missile defense deployment right now, which are suggesting that the technology either is already in hand or will be in hand very soon.

I would conclude by noting that, totally apart from the other political risks and economic costs of missile defense, one under-appreciated problem with the attention that is being devoted to this is the lack of attention that is being devoted to other, much more immediate threats to American national security. We've seen a lot of attention paid to the missile defense announcement in the last week or so, but much less attention paid to the announcement the administration made on Friday concerning domestic responses to terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. Some of those proposals are eminently sensible. Some of them may turn out to be extremely dubious. It's also immediately clear to me as I walk around Washington that there are a lot of gaps in our counter-terrorism security that are simply not being addressed by this administration. And every minute that the country is spending debating Star Wars, which isn't going to solve any security problems, is a minute we are not devoting to much more practical responses to much more immediate problems. [Back to intro page, ACT November/December 1998]


John Rhinelander:

It was a long time ago that we brought the ABM Treaty to fruition. In personal terms, my youngest was two years old at the time, and he now has a two-year-old daughter—it really was a generation ago. It took us two and a half years to negotiate that treaty. At the same time, we tried for the first time to get restraints on offensive weapons, with partial success. Where we totally failed on the offensive side was on the MIRVed weapons—the multiple independent re-entry vehicles—which have dogged us for more than 30 years. And if, in fact, we back out of the ABM Treaty, the MIRV issue is going to raise its head again; that's the most important thing to remember.

One of the problems of commenting on the treaty and the deployment proposal is that we don't yet have a proposal. But, assuming it may involve two sites (one possibly in Alaska) and some things in space and maybe things on the ocean, there are at least four articles of the treaty which are directly impacted by this proposal: I, III, V and VI.

Article I—which is the general statement of the treaty—says that we won't deploy a nation-wide defense, we won't provide a base for it and we will only provide a regional one consistent with the rest of the treaty. Obviously, what they are looking at right now is a nation-wide defense. If they can do it from one site they will do it. If it takes two, which means putting one up in Alaska, they will do that, or they may even do more than that. So, Article I.B will have to be stripped out of the treaty.

Article III was the most contentious part of the treaty in terms of the time it took us to negotiate it and all the hoops we had to jump through. It sets forth the conditions for the two authorized sites, amended two years later down to one site. It said in 1972 that one site had to be around the national capital area—which the Soviets already had and which they have maintained ever since; all the interceptors (no more than 100) and the engagement radars had to be within a 150-kilometer circle. That's the only one the Soviets were ever interested in. We built the other site, which under the treaty had to be at an ICBM field, with the 100 interceptors and the engagement radars within a 150-kilometer circle. If, in fact, we go to one site in North Dakota and one in Alaska, clearly we will have to amend Article III.

Just so you are familiar with a little bit of the history of this article, which is really quite colorful, about a third of the way into the SALT I talks, the U.S. gave the Soviets a choice: either one-for-one—one site on each side—or zero-zero, your choice. The Soviets came back, relatively quickly for those days, and said they had chosen one-for-one. Our response was: "You made the wrong choice; it is no longer on the table. In fact, neither choice is on the table; the choice is now four-for-one." And then we went back to three-for-one, and then two-for-one and we ended up with two-for-two with the understanding that two-for-two meant one-for-one all along. That's just to show you that these things don't appear overnight.

As far as I know, the Soviets and now the Russians have never indicated any willingness to accept anything other than a single site as set up under the treaty. And given the state of their economy now and the state of technology, unless we were to share with them everything we have, as Ronald Reagan suggested at one point, I don't see any interest at all in Russia for another site. The one they have now is no good, and we've always known it was no good.

Article V says you cannot develop, test or deploy sea-based, air-based, space-based or land mobile-based ABM systems or components. The only things you can develop or deploy are fixed land-based systems. You can't even develop the others. This was a very contentious thing during the Reagan years when the United States tried to re-interpret it away. Space-based sensors that can substitute for engagement radars are almost certain to be part of the new scheme, so it raises an Article V issue of the first magnitude.

Article VI is often overlooked, but I want to stress it. It says neither side can give ABM capabilities to systems which are not ABMs—such as air defense. We focused in the ABM negotiations on capabilities. We said we don't care about your intentions, since your intentions can change overnight, what we really want to know about are the capabilities of the systems. That was the position we took; we insisted on it and that was the way the treaty was written. If, in fact, you say we don't care about capabilities—which is the way the Soviets originally proposed the treaty—then the treaty is ephemeral and it doesn't mean anything.

If we go forward with what Cohen is talking about, we've got to amend or at least interpret away at least those four articles of the ABM Treaty, and the definitions as well.

Let me raise three legal points. Spurgeon has already mentioned the first one. The draft ratification article before the Duma has an article that makes a U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty or infringement on the treaty a basis for Russian withdrawal from START II. The timing is exquisite, since we have just said that we are either going to amend the treaty or withdraw from it and we will tell the Russians why that's in their interest. This approach, which was effectively what the Secretary said, flies in the face of the ratification instrument which has apparently been negotiated between Yeltsin's group and the Duma.

Secondly, the ABM Treaty has had a stormy past. Recently, Secretary Albright said nobody should come up with a doctrinaire interpretation of it. In 1985 there was an extraordinary interpretation of it, in which Judge Sofaer, legal adviser for the State Department speaking for the Reagan administration, tried to say that it didn't prohibit what it clearly did prohibit. It took Sam Nunn and an intensive effort to show that this interpretation was absolutely frivolous; the Congress then pinned down the original interpretation.

Finally, you should all note that some of the Senate Republicans take the position that there is no ABM Treaty anymore anyway, and therefore nobody need worry about it. Their rationale is that the treaty was between the United States and the Soviet Union, so when the Soviet Union disappeared the treaty disappeared with it. They blame everything on Clinton if the U.S. takes the contrary position. The facts of life are that after the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 and Gorbachev resigned, then-Secretary of State Jim Baker was in Moscow the following month. Yeltsin and the Russian government affirmed in his presence that Russia had stepped into the shoes of the Soviet Union on all international treaties. The UN Charter was the first one—nothing has been exchanged in writing and yet Russia sits on the Security Council and exercises a veto. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] was another case; Russia stepped into the shoes of the Soviet Union as one of the five nuclear-weapon states. The ABM Treaty was explicitly referred to in the exchange between Baker and Yeltsin. So it's not Clinton who did this, it was the Bush administration which recognized Russia from day one.

Senator [Jesse] Helms [R-NC] and others are hoping that the ABM protocols will be sent to the Hill so the Senate can reject them. As a lawyer, I'll tell you, that would have no effect whatsoever. Russia is legally the successor to the Soviet Union. The president alone has the power to recognize the successors. So if the Senate wants to reject things coming up it can do that, certainly, but it doesn't mean the treaty is not in effect. It is in effect.

Let me close with three comments. This treaty, like all post-World War II treaties, has a withdrawal clause. With six months' notice the U.S. can legally get out of the ABM Treaty. I think some of the Republicans on the Hill are frustrated that Reagan disliked the treaty intensely but didn't withdraw from it, nor did Bush or anyone else. So they came up with this kind of immaculate disappearance theory, that nobody has to do anything and the treaty disappears. Legally, the only country that has given notice to withdraw from a major post-World War II treaty is North Korea—from the NPT. That option is out there if we want to exercise it.

Secondly, this treaty makes explicit what is implicit in any treaty: it can be amended. Of course, amendments require agreement by the parties. And the problem with that is to get both sides to agree to what we want to do.

And finally, just a word on interpretations. I get asked quite frequently what the difference is between an interpretation and an amendment. Under our Constitution an amendment has to go before the Senate for its advice and consent, while interpretations don't. There is no bright shining light between the two. If the Senate agrees with what the Executive is doing, they may give the Executive a good deal of slack. If they disagree, anything the Executive does or even thinks about will be called an amendment, requiring approval by the Senate. The ABM package that will go up to the Hill, should the Duma ever act [on START II], is a combination of interpretations and amendments, and the amendments, of course, would have to get two-thirds approval by the Senate before they go into effect. [Back to intro page, ACT November/December 1998]


Susan Eisenhower:

In the summer of 1992, I was in Moscow when somebody on the street handed me a pamphlet. It said that a new political party had just been born. It was to push for a unification between the United States and Russia, and called for the establishment of the United States of America and Russia. According to this new political party, all you'd have to do is build a bridge over the Bering Strait and you would have a country uniquely capable of virtually eliminating nuclear weapons, being pre-eminent in space, combining industrial capability with energy resources and, of course, taking care of such troublesome problems as greenhouse gasses. Well, that was only seven years ago. The difference between the euphoria of 1992 and the state of U.S.-Russian relations in 1999 is very disturbing. I would like to make three major points.

When one reads accounts of the delay in START II ratification in the Duma, there is a tendency to think it's the so-called bad guys who are delaying the ratification. I would like to make one clarification here: This vote is being delayed by those who are in favor of ratification of START II. In fact, it has been estimated that it would take between 70 and 90 communist swing votes to pass this treaty. The supporters don't want it to come up for a vote until they are sure it's going to pass. If it is rejected once it is brought up for a vote, that's it. They don't have another shot at it. We should ask ourselves how it is that every time they come up ready for a vote, or the democrats think they now have the right environment where those 70 to 90 swing communists are on their side, the United States does something to make this unattractive, to say the least.

It's most regrettable that, when the votes were finally lined up before our bombing of Iraq—a fact that American officials were well aware of—we lost that opportunity.

My second point is that while the news media tend to make it seem unreasonable that the Russians are upset about these strikes against Iraq, I would emphasize that the Russians have a very different way of looking at how the Middle Eastern situation ought to be handled. Whether we want to believe them or not, I've had many conversations with Russians who emphasize that both countries' goals in that part of the world are really not that different. But I can tell you when I met with [Foreign Minister] Yvegeny Primakov in February of last year during the last Gulf crisis, while the U.S. was considering the idea of bombing Iraq, he was of the view that if we bombed Iraq, weapons inspections there would be dead. We'd never have weapons inspections again, and it could well destabilize the Middle East. Now that we've bombed Iraq, I'm not sure that his assessment was that far off. Certainly, we'll be very lucky if we ever get weapons inspectors back into Iraq. In that sense he may well have had a real insight.

Finally, I would say that the frustration for a person like myself, who has focused on U.S.-Russian relations for 15 years, arises because it seems like everything we worked for, leading up to the period in 1989 when things were so hopeful, is virtually down the tubes. It is very, very hard to watch everything you've worked for for 15 years be jeopardized in such a careless way. Remember how Gorbachev stunned the world in 1989 when he talked about a common European home. He understood that in order to become part of a common European home the Soviet Union would have to change its behavior, and change it did. The Soviets withdrew armed forces from Europe and they adopted many measures in the expectation that the Soviet Union would be welcomed into Europe as a whole and free partner.

Well, Gorbachev is gone and I guess the hope for that transition is gone too. Starting fairly early on, the United States began the process of NATO expansion, which is viewed in Russia, whether we like it or not, as an attempt by the West to renege on the "two-plus-four" treaty. The condition for which, of course, ended up being Germany's position in NATO. Gorbachev himself has told some of the people in this room that he felt swindled by NATO expansion. The real message to Russia in NATO expansion has been: You may be Europe's largest country, but we're not going to let you into the system; we're going to give you some sort of associate status. Frankly, I'm fascinated by the argument that Russia would never be appropriately placed in NATO because it's too big a power. We have Germany in NATO and we also have the United States. I don't think that argument sits very well with the people who are trying to think logically in this country; it certainly doesn't sit in an understandable way in Moscow.

In this context, you can understand that the administration's recent announcement concerning national ballistic missile deployment would be perceived in Russia as something along the lines of NATO expansion. It will be given that kind of gravity, and I think we should also take that very seriously. In addition to NATO expansion, of course, the Russians have had their economic collapse. We've refused to help them on any basis unless they do it our way. That is how it's been seen in Moscow. Add to this the bombing of Iraq, Cohen's NMD announcement, U.S. sanctions on a number of Moscow enterprises for apparently aiding Iran's ballistic missile program, the debate about NATO's status as a global power, and the U.S. view that NATO no longer has to get the approval of UN resolutions to take action around the world. From Russia's standpoint, this is devastating because the UN is the only major international organization where it has both a voice and a veto. So the objection in Moscow should be seen as a growing reaction to American unilateralism.

I was always taught, that you cannot organize your strategy properly unless you understand how it looks to the other side. I think we've done a very bad job of putting ourselves into the Russian position, because if we could do that we might see what effect some of these measures could have on a number of upcoming events.

In 1996, before the presidential campaign in Russia, there was a policy in Washington that I would call, "Do no harm to the Russian democrats." In fact, a number of steps regarding announcements on NATO expansion were all postponed until after the presidential election of 1996. Something has happened between 1996 and 1999, accompanying Russia's economic collapse and the further disintegration of Russian military forces. This is clearly no longer the policy. As concerned Americans, we should be worried when our behavior is clearly perceived in Moscow as an attempt to take advantage of Russia's weakness because apparently we don't care about not doing harm anymore.

I'd like to remind everybody that we have Duma elections coming up in 1999. The campaign is going to start in the next month or so, and the timing of Secretary Cohen's announcement is most unfortunate. Furthermore, we have a Russian president who continues to have severe medical problems, and a Russian presidential election coming up in the year 2000. I think we have to stand back and ask ourselves whether this long-term strategic approach is really necessary for us to take, and whether it could adversely affect our own national security. [Back to intro page, ACT November/December 1998]



Questions & Answers:

Q: What are the reasons behind the U.S. administration making this decision at this time? Do you see any connections with the current scandal in Washington?

Eisenhower: I wouldn't identify the scandal specifically. I would say that there is a feeling in this country, rightly or wrongly, that domestic political questions are more important than international strategic questions. I think, also, that the United States takes its moderately good relations with Russia for granted.

It seems rather ironic that we are focusing on these small issues without looking at the overall big picture. I love Tom Friedman's comment that we didn't fight and win the Cold War so we could expand NATO. I would say the same thing about ballistic missile defenses.

Rhinelander: I think Clinton is driven entirely by domestic politics. First, his new position on national missile defense basically removes this issue between the Executive and Congress over the remainder of Clinton's term in office. Both now agree that they'll deploy. The only problem is that we've got nothing to deploy because nothing works. Secondly, it removes the issue from the presidential campaign of the year 2000. The Democrats' position—if Gore picks it up, which I'm sure he will—is now that we will deploy, if and when we can. So, an issue which was one of the prominent issues of the Contract for America has been effectively grabbed by the Democrats.

This has familiar echoes with 1967. For those of you who weren't following the scene then, Robert McNamara made a famous speech in San Francisco justifying the deployment of our missile defense, based on a Chinese threat which, as you know, was non-existent at the time. The speech was domestically driven, with the Congress pushing it on the Executive. When that happens, of course, it can screw things up for a long period of time.

Pike: A lot of what you are seeing on the missile defense question in the defense budget is that the defense contractors and the other special interests that want more money in the defense budget have made arrangements with the Congress to get that money. The Pentagon and the White House have come to the conclusion that as long as this is going to happen anyway, if they are going to have any role in the process—apart from just doing whatever the Congress tells them to do—they are going to have to propose these funding increases as well.

Also, personnel changes at the Pentagon over the past year have moved in senior decision makers who are more sympathetic to missile defense. Paul Komminski, who certainly recognized the frailty of missile defense, left some time back. Hans Mark has come in as director of defense research and engineering; he is a well-known enthusiast for these types of technologies.

Keeny: I don't think this political and economic explanation, while it may make Cohen's statement seem less threatening, can really be reassuring to Russians who are concerned about the status of their military. Nor does it make them feel any better about the cavalier way in which we are treating their concerns.

Pike: That is what bothers me, Spurgeon. Very important decisions are being made here for relatively trivial domestic considerations. That's all the more reason that we should be worried.

Q: Is it unduly pessimistic to read Cohen's statement as initiating the next great arms race for the twenty-first century? With the proliferation of ballistic missiles, are we going to see the outright militarization of space, and as John Rhinelander pointed out, the return big time of multiple independent re-entry vehicles? Where will we be 30 or 40 years down the road?

Keeny: I think that is a worst-case assessment but certainly possible. Given the problems we've had with ballistic missile defense, there are very few other countries that can get into this business. And it will only happen if we are the source of the technology and pay for it. The more immediate impact will be the chilling effect it is going to have, or worse, on the ongoing process of moving away from nuclear weapons and continuing drastic reductions in nuclear stockpiles. If START II collapses, Russia will probably deploy land-based MIRVs, undoing one of the major accomplishments of START II's negotiation. We can see serious near-term problems, but I don't think we can look 30 or 40 years into the future on this problem.

Q: Doesn't Cohen's announcement, even without the actual deployment of NMD, encourage ballistic missile and cruise missile proliferation?

Keeny: Spending tens of billions of dollars for a very thin defense leads you into a complicated future, because either it will be a total failure or people will want to keep improving it. The system has no capability against cruise missiles and other forms of delivery, which takes you into the whole area of air defense and defense against other means of delivery. If carried to its logical extreme, this will become a massive effort as you try to develop a Fortress America concept, albeit only against small attacks.

Whether the Japanese and others will be seduced into pursuing this same line remains to be seen. So far, I don't think any other country has seriously associated itself with this approach. Clearly, it will be a very different world if we see massive efforts in this direction, with countries insisting on maintaining a nuclear deterrent. It will mean larger forces for the existing nuclear powers, and it would encourage other countries to find other means of delivery.

Rhinelander: I wouldn't draw those conclusions at the moment. I have learned from both government life and private life that any time you look past one year you are getting into very shaky territory. Five-year planning used to be very popular, but it quickly lost a lot of sense. The threats they're talking about don't exist right now. And the system they're talking about wouldn't do any good against the threat that does exist right now, the Russians. If we know we can't defend ourselves against the Russians, then why are we spending all that money? Part of the answer would be—although they wouldn't say it this way—money doesn't mean anything these days; we have a big surplus so we can spend it. At some point, I think the money issue will come back.

Just a final reminder, although history doesn't necessarily repeat itself: Richard Nixon, campaigning for the presidency in 1968, was in favor of a twelve-site ABM system and was beating up on the Democrats. When he got in he essentially said, "Oh, I didn't know it didn't work." And then we negotiated the ABM Treaty. So, don't be taken in by what I think is largely political rhetoric.

Pike: It's too soon to say what the long-term impact is going to be. But this system, which according to the news reports is supposed to be able to intercept 15 re-entry vehicles and is supposed to include a site in Alaska—which is very conveniently located between the United States and China, with its dozen or so re-entry vehicles capable of reaching the United States—would have to be a very popular topic in briefings in China on their strategic modernization program. The Chinese missile development program is at a very crucial juncture. For the last several decades they've deployed a small number of big missiles. They are making that critical transition from large, liquid-propellant missiles to small, solid-propellant missiles. When the United States made that transition, it went from having hundreds of missiles to having thousands of missiles. It's fairly easy to imagine the Chinese thinking that because this American system is configured to optimize its applicability against them, because they have these production lines going for these new solid-propellant submarine missiles and ICBMs, because China is now a great power, and because the Americans and Russians won't build down to China's level of strategic forces, maybe China should build up to theirs. Looking ahead 10 or 15 years, that is the main reason I would be sorry for making these decisions today.

Q: If China is going to respond to this announcement that way, doesn't that also encourage India and Pakistan to respond similarly?

Pike: I would also look at Taiwan and Japan. The overall strategic nuclear situation in Northwest Asia and East Asia over the last 15–20 years has been relatively static, but there is certainly a possibility that that will change. Certainly the Chinese would be looking at Japanese theater missile defense and the U.S. national missile defense. It would not be difficult for them to make the argument that the relatively limited, finite nuclear posture they've had over the last several decades simply does not have the credibility that it had in the past.

Eisenhower: I was thinking this morning as I was coming here, how ironic it is that this could set off a new arms race when there is really no immediate threat.

This may come as a complete and total shock to us, but believe it or not, people tend to take America at its word overseas. There are defense industrial groups around the world that are looking for announcements like this to justify their own efforts to gain more funding, especially as military budgets are going down. Talk is not cheap; talk can be very expensive. I just wish we had a little more long-range thinking here in Washington.

Keeny: An overlooked fact is that the United States and Russia have a commitment, as part of the indefinite extension of the NPT, to make progress on the reduction of their nuclear forces under Article VI. This will come up for review in the year 2000. While I don't think it will be catastrophic, it will certainly have a very chilling effect on that review conference that no progress will have been made on the START reduction process if START II gets hung up on this issue. And, of course, the other main issue on which we had a specific commitment was to complete the Comprehensive Test Ban. While it was completed and signed on schedule in 1996, the treaty is now stalled in the Senate. So, five years after the indefinite extension of the NPT, the United States and Russia will have absolutely nothing to show in progress toward rolling back the nuclear weapons threat and we'll take the blame.

Q: In terms of public education, what can be done to bring this issue to the American public that lives outside the "Beltway"?

Keeny: In a small way, we are trying to carry out that process here today. A major goal is to get the media to report the facts as they are and to take into account the view of critics such as ourselves. One of the most important things will be to get some champion of common sense in the Senate, so that, when the Senate goes back to work, this problem will be treated in a serious fashion. I hope that Senator Levin and others will take it on as a major issue so that we're not stampeded into action that we will regret.

I am struck by how little public enthusiasm there is for a missile defense system, despite its superficial attractiveness and the considerable political push behind it from the Republican Party and possibly now from the Clinton administration itself.

Eisenhower: I think it is really up to everybody to get out and start talking to the public about this. I do a lot of traveling around the country and talking to various groups, and in my experience people are absolutely hungry to know what is going on. If the Cold War did anything really damaging to American democracy, it was that there was a kind of deal made: "This is too complicated for you, the American public, to understand, so you just leave this up to us." I think everybody went along with this. It's our own failure inside the Beltway to not find ways to simplify this enough. Because, certainly those who are in favor of missile defenses pose it in a very simple and easy-to-understand way.

Q: Given the technological challenges facing NMD deployment and the fact that no clear timetable has been made, don't your comments challenge the view that "the sky is falling"?

Keeny: I don't think the sky is falling yet, but the tone of Secretary Cohen's statement was that this decision, while not yet formally made, is the way we are going. We are going to put money into the budget for various pre-production and pre-deployment activities. So while it may just turn out to be a delaying tactic, it comes across as being much more serious than that, particularly to Russians and others. Remember, Cohen said we'd be prepared to make a decision in 2000 and John Pike can probably suggest some tethered chicken experiments that can be seized upon as saying, we now know that we are on the right track and will simply go right to deployment.

Rhinelander: I think we cripple ourselves in dealing with the Russians, which is the most important thing of all. I can't think of anything more important than dealing with the Russian strategic systems, tactical systems, their fissile materials. Those ought to be the first, second and third priorities. And rather than focusing on that, we are shoving down their throats something that doesn't exist, when we don't know what we want and we won't know for four or five years. It also complicates the situation between India and Pakistan, there's no question about that. So what we have done is shoot ourselves in both feet and probably in the head at the same time, without having anything that will defend us.

Pike: I think that is an important point. One doesn't have to look too far for previous examples where we have deployed things that we knew did not work. Look at the Pershing IIs that we sent to Europe back in the early 1980s: They were known not to work. But because it was politically convenient to say that we had deployed the Pershing II, inoperative hardware was sent over there.

We are on the verge of getting ourselves into the worst of all possible worlds by rearranging the political architecture to accommodate this and then not having anything to deploy. On theater missile defense, we've managed to get the Russians to sign off on the low-speed half of the agreement and we've unilaterally asserted that the high-speed half of the agreement is now the correct version of the treaty, which the Russians have not objected to. We've gone through that entire process, and maybe a decade from now we will have the hardware to implement this.

Down at Fort Bliss, a fully-equipped THAAD battalion has been out in the field for the last two years. They go to maneuvers, they go to exercises, they're trained. They've got their transporters. They're fully equipped except they don't have any bullets. And they're not going to have any bullets for another decade or so. That is basically what we're doing on this national missile defense business: We are going to incur all the political downsides in terms of arms control with the Russians, strategic build-up by the Chinese, and we'll burn up $5 billion a year from now on. And we're not going to have anything to show for it.

Q: Would you address another factor propelling the NMD announcement; that is, the intensive rivalry between military services to develop and deploy their own ballistic missile defense systems, which is reminiscent of the rivalries at the beginning of the Cold War?

Keeny: As you recall, the way the nuclear turf war was decided in the '50s was that all the services got involved in the nuclear business and every system had to have a version with nuclear warheads, from field artillery to cruise missiles. In the case of ballistic missile defense, you already have the same thing. The army, navy, and air force are all engaged in this activity. It's a scandal, the number of competing systems we have to accomplish a theater missile defense.

Pike: In Moscow and Beijing, when they start looking at the American system, they're not simply going to be looking at the North Dakota and Alaska systems, but also at the strategic capabilities of other systems that we are calling theater systems. The most important one is the Navy Theater Wide system. The navy traditionally has not had a great interest in missile defense, but a funny thing happened on the way home from the Cold War. The navy had all of these fine Aegis-class ships with nearly 6,000 missile launch cells. During the Cold War they were all going to launch Standard missiles to defend aircraft carriers from Soviet naval aviation; currently we are using some of them to hold Tomahawk missiles.

The problem is that the surface warfare community does not want 6,000 Tomahawk missiles on board because then people would ask very serious questions about why we have aircraft carriers at all. So within the last five years or so the navy has developed a profound interest in TMD. Since these are very long-range interceptors, these Aegis-class boats, when they are home-ported in the United States, are essentially going to serve as the East and West Coast batteries of the NMD system. The navy blows hot and cold as to whether it will admit this or whether it's proud to claim it.

Q: What was new in Cohen's announcement was the statement that the ballistic missile threat to the United States is at the door. Is this a legitimate concern, and is the response to the threat—a national missile defense—a reasonable one?

Keeny: Cohen said his reasons were drawn from the findings of the Rumsfeld Commission report and the fact that the North Koreans tested the Taepo Dong-1. I don't agree with the conclusion, but that is his explanation for this conclusion.

Pike: The only thing surprising about the Taepo Dong-1 test that North Korea conducted last year was that it took them so long. It had been anticipated that the first flight test of that missile would take place in 1995, so the fact that it took place in 1998 suggests a program that's moving fairly slowly. The North Koreans did what Werner von Braun did back in 1957, when he launched our first satellite using a small medium-range missile with a small third stage on it. This suggests that North Korean rocket scientists read their history books. But it certainly does not suggest any particularly noteworthy military capability.

Q: Senator Helms and others have said that the ABM Treaty is dead and Senate rejection of the "demarcation" protocols will only confirm this. Could you explain the legal status of the treaty and the associated protocols?

Rhinelander: The basic position of Helms and a number of other Republicans on the Hill is that there is no ABM Treaty since it died with the Soviet Union. It will only come into existence—it will spring back to life, if you will—if these amendments are sent to the Hill and the Senate gives its advice and consent. If the amendments are voted down, they don't go into effect and the treaty stays dead. This is a frivolous legal position, but it's one with political support behind it.

As long as the Clinton administration is in office, the ABM Treaty is going to stay in existence because the Senate cannot, as a practical matter, do anything to abrogate it. The only way the treaty could conceivably be overridden would be for the Senate and the House to pass domestic legislation inconsistent with the treaty over the President's veto. That's not going to happen politically.

As for the amendments, they provide a dividing line between what is permitted and what is prohibited in a theater missile defense system. Both Russia and the United States have agreed on the amendments but neither side has ratified them. The administration's position is that these amendments will be sent up as a package with the START II follow-on agreements as soon as the Duma acts on START II. If the Duma doesn't act, I think those agreements are going to sit in the White House through the remainder of Clinton's term.

Keeny: Senators Helms and Kyl and others are hostile to the demarcation agreements, even though they give us tremendous freedom of action on theater missile defense, because these senators want to kill the whole treaty. I think they believe that the demarcation agreements, which put some upper limits on theater missile defense, make it more difficult to attack the ABM Treaty. [Back to intro page, ACT November/December 1998]