"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Just Say 'No'

The Clinton administration is considering deployment of a limited national missile defense (NMD), which would require amendment of every substantive article in the ABM Treaty. Not surprisingly, Russia adamantly opposes this action. If President Clinton decides on deployment next July without Russian agreement, he will set the stage for U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which will have far-reaching adverse implications for U.S. security.

In signing congressional legislation making it U.S. policy to deploy an "effective" NMD as soon as technologically possible, Clinton stated his decision would depend on technical progress, evaluation of the threat, the cost and the impact on U.S. arms control objectives, including necessary changes to the ABM Treaty. Despite Clinton's repeated assertions that no decision has been made, senior members of his administration have argued so strongly for NMD deployment as a necessary response to a possible North Korean ICBM threat that it is widely believed the decision has already been made.

It has been clear for some time on technical grounds alone that a responsible deployment decision cannot be made in mid-2000. Most recently, a committee of experts headed by General Larry Welch, retired Air Force chief of staff, concluded that the "demonstration of readiness to deploy will not come until 2003 at the earliest." The system is currently being tested with elements that are surrogates for the undemonstrated actual components, except for the kill vehicle, which the committee judged may not prove compatible with the extremely high accelerations of the untested high-performance booster. The committee found that the lack of spares and an "underestimation of the complexity" of the problem in this "very high risk" program make further slippage likely.

The North Korean ICBM threat is dismissed by the rest of the world as either a paranoid U.S. fantasy or a thin cover for other objectives. The U.S. estimate depends on a worst-case assessment of how quickly a minimum North Korean capability might conceivably be achieved, divorced from any consideration of how such a capability might be exploited by North Korea. The notion that a poverty-stricken state without allies would suicidally launch ICBMs against the United States, inviting its own obliteration, or even threaten such an attack, risking a pre-emptive U.S. strike, is simply not credible. Moreover, in the real world, North Korea is engaged in negotiations that may well lead to the abandonment of its missile program.

The direct cost of the proposed limited NMD system is very uncertain given the inchoate state of the program's architecture, with the first phase alone estimated at $20-30 billion and all three phases estimated at twice as much. Given the history of far less demanding high-tech systems, one would expect current estimates to double. A more comprehensive system, desired by true NMD believers in Congress, would probably cost between $100-200 billion.

The actual costs and consequences of deployment coupled with U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty are far more dangerous than any potential "rogue" state threat. Russia believes that the proposed NMD would provide the base for a much larger deployment that would be directed at them. U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would undoubtedly end the strategic arms reduction process because Russia would want to design its force to assure penetration of a future NMD by retaining its MIRVed land-based ICBMs, which are banned under START II. China would accelerate its strategic modernization program since even the proposed limited NMD could defend against any Chinese missiles that survive a pre-emptive U.S. strike. Such reactions will hardly contribute to improved U.S. relations with Russia and China, which are essential to future U.S. and world security.

U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty coupled with collapse of the strategic reductions process and following Senate rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would drastically undercut U.S. leadership in the non-proliferation regime. Even U.S. allies and friends see the NMD program as unnecessary and provocative. Others see it as part of a strategy of unilateral hegemony permitting the United States to intervene anywhere with impunity. In a recent UN First Committee vote, only Israel, Latvia and Micronesia supported U.S. opposition to a resolution supporting the ABM Treaty.

Political pundits pontificate that it is a foregone conclusion that Clinton will decide next summer to deploy an NMD to remove this issue from the presidential campaign. But the president will have to make this fateful decision against the weight of all of the criteria he has established. If Clinton does not want to burden his final legacy with the destruction of the ABM Treaty and the strategic arms reduction process, he has a simple alternative to deployment just say 'No!'