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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
NMD Bill Clears Congress as Senate Re-Examines ABM Treaty
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Craig Cerniello

IN LATE MAY, the House approved legislation stating that it is U.S. policy to both deploy an "effective" national missile defense (NMD) system "as soon as is technologically possible" and to "seek continued negotiated reductions in Russian nuclear forces." The bill, which is identical to a measure adopted by the Senate in mid-March, will now be sent to President Clinton, who is expected to sign it. The legislation will not alter the administration's plans to make a decision in June 2000 on whether to deploy a limited NMD system. Clinton has already stated that the decision will be based on four key criteria: technological readiness, the maturity of the so-called "rogue state" missile threat, cost factors and arms control considerations.

Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducted a series of seven hearings throughout April and May on ballistic missile defenses and the ABM Treaty, in anticipation of a vote this year on several amendments to the treaty that were signed in 1997 but have not yet been submitted to the Senate. Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) had given the White House a June 1 deadline for submitting the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on ABM Treaty succession as well as two agreed statements establishing a "demarcation line" between strategic and theater missile defenses. The Clinton administration will not meet Helms' deadline, however, because it has refused to submit the ABM amendments for Senate advice and consent until Russia has ratified START II. Failure to transmit these agreements has already prompted Helms to freeze all committee action on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and to question the validity of the so-called "flank agreement" to the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. (See story.)

After the adoption of two amendments, dealing with reductions in Russian nuclear forces and appropriations of funding, the Senate on March 17 passed legislation, sponsored by Thad Cochran (R-MS), calling upon the United States to deploy an effective NMD system against limited ballistic missile attack "as soon as is technologically possible." (See ACT, March 1999.) That same day, Clinton endorsed the Cochran bill as amended because it made clear that no final decision had yet been made on NMD deployment and recognized the importance of cost and arms control factors in such a decision.

On March 18, the House approved a one-sentence bill, sponsored by Curt Weldon (R-PA), stating "That it is the policy of the United States to deploy a national missile defense." This version, however, did not have White House support because it made no mention of the basic criteria for deployment. In a compromise designed to ensure passage of NMD legislation this year, the House accepted the Cochran language on May 20 by a vote of 345-71.

In voting for the Senate language, Weldon argued that the two amendments were meaningless and accused the administration of deferring an NMD deployment decision until 2000 so that Vice President Al Gore could announce U.S. intentions to field such a system in the midst of a presidential campaign.

Not surprisingly, Russia continued to denounce U.S. interest in NMD. "By pursuing a policy of creating and deploying a [NMD] system, which is banned by the ABM Treaty, the U.S. ignores the opinion of an absolute majority of the states of the world, which justifiably regard such a policy as directly undermining global security and stability," a Russian Foreign Ministry official stated May 27.

ABM Treaty Under Siege

In a series of hearings heavily stacked against supporters of the ABM Treaty, several prominent former government officials argued that the strategic rationale for the 1972 accord no longer exists and that the United States must either negotiate substantial modifications allowing for NMD deployment or exercise its right to withdraw.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the principal architect of the ABM Treaty, argued on May 26 that the United States must deploy missile defenses for both strategic and moral reasons. "Strategically, because of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the missile technology to deliver them. Morally, because the doctrine of mutual assured destruction…is bankrupt," he said. Former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey also argued on May 5 that the logic behind the ABM Treaty "seems dated now," in light of the end of the Cold War, the increasing possibility of an accidental or unauthorized Russian nuclear launch and the emerging rogue-state ICBM threat.

Nevertheless, Kissinger and Woolsey concluded that it would be better for the United States to negotiate amendments to the ABM Treaty than to simply withdraw—a point also made by former Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Strategic Command General Eugene Habiger on May 5 and former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger on April 20. Earlier, on April 15, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger called for U.S. abrogation, claiming that an effective defense could not be deployed under the treaty.

Some witnesses—most notably Stephen Hadley, former assistant secretary of defense during the Bush administration, and Keith Payne, president of the National Institute for Public Policy—also advocated a return to the 1992 U.S.-Russian dialogue on global missile defense cooperation. President Boris Yeltsin surprisingly endorsed such a concept in January of that year, when he said Russia was prepared to "develop, then create and jointly operate a global defense system, instead of the Strategic Defense Initiative system." (See ACT, January/February 1992). There does not appear to be any official U.S. or Russian interest in such a proposal at present.

Witnesses were divided on the issue of whether the technology exists to deploy an effective NMD system. While Bill Graham, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Reagan administration, and General John Piotrowski, former commander-in-chief of U.S. Space Command, argued that it was technologically feasible to deploy an effective NMD, Richard Garwin, a well-known expert on nuclear weapons who served on the Rumsfeld Commission, and David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed to the system's limitations and inherent vulnerability to countermeasures.

The panelists were also split on the legal status of the ABM Treaty. Attorneys Douglas Feith and David Rivkin asserted on May 25 that the treaty had lapsed with the demise of the Soviet Union and that it could only be revived by the Senate. UC-Davis law professor Michael Glennon, however, testified that the ABM Treaty remains in force today and will continue to be in force even if the Senate rejects the MOU on succession—a view shared by the Clinton administration.