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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 Decision-Who's in Charge?

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

Self-inflicted pressure to meet a self-imposed July deadline continues to build for a presidential decision on deployment of a national missile defense (NMD). Although President Clinton has asserted that no decision has been made, his senior advisors, led by Secretary of Defense William Cohen, publicly advocate that the United States urgently needs such a defense, despite growing evidence that it is not only unnecessary, but also contrary to U.S. security interests.

When Clinton signed compromise legislation in July 1999 making it U.S. policy to deploy an effective limited NMD system, he underscored that the legislation also made it U.S. policy to seek reductions in Russian nuclear forces. He announced that his decision on whether to deploy would be predicated on technological progress, cost estimates, evaluation of the threat and progress in achieving arms control objectives, including any necessary amendments to the ABM Treaty. Developments to date have made it clear that none of these criteria will be met by July 2000.

On technical grounds alone, a responsible decision to deploy cannot be made this summer even if the much-heralded next test should prove successful. So far, intercept tests have used surrogate elements, except for a prototype kill vehicle that may not be compatible with the untested high-acceleration interceptor. Last fall, an independent committee of experts chaired by General Larry Welch, retired Air Force chief of staff, issued an extremely critical report, characterizing the program as "very high risk" and concluding that "demonstration of readiness to deploy will not come until 2003 at the earliest." Recently, the Pentagon official responsible for reviewing all test programs has expressed great concern that the NMD program is driven by an imposed schedule rather than demonstrated accomplishments, making premature decisions extremely unwise.

The rationale for the limited NMD-the threat that "rogue" states such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran may attack or blackmail the United States-is rapidly losing whatever credibility it ever had. Despite Cohen's most recent alarmist statements that "in the next five to 10 years, these rogue countries will be able to hold all of NATO at risk with their missile forces," few states are persuaded that any of these countries would risk obliteration by attempting blackmail, much less by attacking NATO, in the very unlikely event that they developed such a capability. Recent events counter such worst-case estimates, which were based on conceivable technical developments divorced from real-world considerations. North Korea has agreed to discontinue its missile tests while negotiating on its missile program; the UN Security Council has reached consensus on a new inspection regime which, if defied by Iraq, will result in continued sanctions; and elections in Iran suggest it may be moving toward a more cooperative posture.

The estimated cost of the limited NMD continues to grow, ranging from $30-60 billion, with the more ambitious programs championed by Republican NMD enthusiasts costing hundreds of billions. These costs, however, simply involve wasting public funds by overreacting to unlikely threats. The real costs are the imponderable impacts of NMD deployment on U.S. arms control objectives and relations with the rest of the world.

Russia has made it clear that it will not amend the ABM Treaty to permit the proposed NMD deployment. Russian leaders believe that it would form the base for rapid deployment of a NMD system that could negate the surviving Russian deterrent after a pre-emptive U.S. attack. They also hear the call of influential Republican senators for a multi-layered NMD to counter all Russian capabilities. If the United States withdraws from the ABM Treaty, as some threaten, prospects for further reductions under START III would be slim, and Russia might even carry out its threat to withdraw from the START I and II. China, which sees NMD as clearly intended to negate its modest deterrent force, will certainly accelerate its strategic nuclear modernization plans and be drawn closer to Russia.

NATO members, whose views were originally unsolicited, are deeply concerned about the implications for the alliance if Washington believes no part of the United States can be at risk, while the rest of NATO remains completely exposed. Europeans wonder whether in U.S. eyes the Aleutian Islands are more important than Paris, Berlin and London.

To preserve his ability to make a reasoned decision on NMD deployment, President Clinton should direct his advisors to cease their efforts to force a positive deployment decision in the absence of serious consideration of the consequences. His own administration should not be allowed to dominate the public debate in a manner that prevents him from just saying "no" to deployment. Clinton should let his successor struggle with this decision when more is known about the system, the threat and the consequences.