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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
NMD System Achieves First Intercept; U.S. Clarifies ABM Negotiating Position

THE PROPOSED U.S. national missile defense (NMD) program achieved a significant milestone in early October when it successfully intercepted an ICBM target for the first time. Russia denounced the test and continued to criticize U.S. efforts to seek amendments to the ABM Treaty that would allow for the deployment of a limited NMD system. About one month before the test, the Clinton administration announced that it would pursue a phased approach to negotiating modifications to the ABM Treaty, with the first phase requiring only modest changes.

The Intercept Test

On October 2, a modified Minuteman ICBM launched from Vandenberg Air Force base in California was destroyed by a "prototype" NMD kill vehicle launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. This was the NMD system's third overall flight test, but only its first attempt to intercept an ICBM target. The Defense Department plans to conduct about 20 NMD intercepts over the next six years, but only two more such tests will be held before June 2000, when the Clinton administration is expected to decide whether to deploy a limited NMD system based on four main criteria: technological readiness, the maturity of the so-called "rogue nation" ICBM threat, cost factors and arms control considerations.

Pentagon sources hailed the test as a major accomplishment demonstrating the ability of an exoatmospheric kill vehicle to hit and destory on impact a projectile travelling at the speed of an ICBM re-entry vehicle. Critics noted that the test was carefully preprogrammed under ideal conditions against a known target and that except for the prototype kill vehicle itself, all of the components involved were surrogates of the ones that would be used in the actual system.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin denounced the test, saying "This test is a step that runs counter to the 1972 ABM Treaty in which Article I bans the very creation of a basis for such a defense. These actions by the United States in effect undermine the key provisions of the ABM Treaty with all the ensuing negative consequences, the responsibility for which will rest with the United States."

Vladimir Yakovlev, commander-in-chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, told Nezavisi-maya Gazeta on October 5 that U.S. actions have the potential to upset strategic stability. He warned, "If the United States throws out the 1972 ABM Treaty, they will effectively become the culprit for a disruption of the process of limiting nuclear weapons. All agreements that have been signed or are being prepared will come under threat—namely, START I, START II and consultations on START III."

U.S. ABM Stance

Meanwhile, in early September, the Clinton administration provided significant new information about its plans for seeking modifications to the ABM Treaty. Responding to an article in The Washington Post, State Department spokesman James Rubin confirmed on September 8 that the United States would seek modifications to the treaty in two phases. In his press briefing, Rubin said, "We anticipate that any initial [NMD] deployment would be Alaska-based, and we have made no decisions regarding the location of a second site, but our long-term goal includes a second site along with additional interceptors and radars, and we will address future threats as we project them now." Rubin continued, "It is now clear that deployment would require changes to the ABM treaty."

Never before has the Clinton administration unequivocally stated that amendments to the ABM Treaty would be required. In the past, administration officials said modifications to the treaty might or might not be necessary, depending on the specific architecture of the NMD system. By announcing that the first site will likely be based in Alaska, the United States must negotiate changes to Article I, which bans a defense of the national territory, and Article III, which allows deployment of up to 100 interceptor missiles at a single site around a nation's capital or at an ICBM field. (The United States originally designated Grand Forks, North Dakota as its ABM site, while the Russian site is located in Moscow.) The second phase will most likely require additional modifications to the treaty.

High-level talks between the United States and Russia continued throughout September on the ABM Treaty and START III, but made little progress. The sides began such discussions in mid-August in Moscow, based on their agreement at the June 1999 Cologne summit.