Leaked Documents Detail U.S. ABM Strategy; GOP Says Limited NMD Plans Are Not Enough

May 2000

By Wade Boese

Aiming to win Russian acquiescence to a limited U.S. national missile defense (NMD), the Clinton administration provided Russia with a draft protocol for amending the ABM Treaty and "talking points" detailing why the NMD system would not jeopardize Moscow's nuclear deterrent. Though Washington outlined the proposed defense's limited capabilities and Russia's current and future ability to overwhelm the system, top Russian officials continued to reject negotiations to permit deployment of a U.S. NMD, while senior Senate Republicans warned President Bill Clinton that an agreement along the lines he has proposed would not likely win the Senate's approval.

The 1972 ABM Treaty bars defenses capable of protecting a country's entire territory from strategic ballistic missiles, as well as the base for such a defense, though it allows 100 interceptors to be deployed at a single site around a country's capital or an ICBM field. Air-, sea-, space-, and mobile land-based missile defense systems and components are all prohibited. The Clinton administration is seeking to amend the accord to avoid having to withdraw from the treaty if the president opts later this year to deploy the limited NMD, which would violate the treaty.

In January, the United States gave Russian officials a draft ABM Treaty protocol that would permit both Russia and the United States to deploy national missile defenses limited to 100 launchers and 100 interceptor missiles "within one deployment region within their national territory." The protocol would also permit the upgrading of existing attack-warning radar systems to enable them to "perform ABM radar functions" and allow each country to deploy a single additional ABM radar anywhere within its territory. The protocol and associated U.S. talking points were leaked to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and made public April 28. (See document.)

The protocol would only cover the initial phase of the administration's NMD plans, which calls for deployment of 100 interceptors and the construction of a new radar in Alaska. The administration plans to eventually field a second site of 125 interceptors, presumably in North Dakota, and an additional 25 interceptors in Alaska, as well as additional radar upgrades and deployment of a satellite system for tracking incoming warheads.

To facilitate future NMD expansion, the draft protocol includes an article that allows one party to request further negotiations anytime after March 1, 2001, to "take into account further changes in the strategic situation…which therefore might require deployment of more effective limited national territorial defense systems." In the leaked documents, the United States said that if the ballistic missile threat grows, which Washington said it believes will happen, the United States would seek further negotiations to deploy "more effective" defenses.

Trying to allay Russian concerns that the proposed NMD system would undercut Russia's nuclear deterrent, the U.S. talking points assert that the initial 100-interceptor system would, in the "best case," be able to destroy 20 to 25 warheads accompanied by primitive defense penetration aids. The "bottom line," according to the talking points, is that the proposed NMD "could protect only against a few dozen ICBM warheads accompanied by sophisticated defense penetration aids."

Dismissing the concern that the proposed missile defense would abet a disarming U.S. first strike, Washington argued that Russia would still be capable of an "annihilating counterattack" if Moscow's nuclear forces are kept on constant alert, thereby allowing a Russian response to be launched before U.S. warheads reached Russian soil. Moreover, the U.S. documents contend that the sheer size and diversity of the Russian nuclear arsenal, with its advanced decoys and penetration aids, could easily overcome the planned defense. Washington noted that under Russia's proposal for START III both countries could have some 1,500 to 2,000 warheads and deploy more than 1,000 ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles "over the next decade and thereafter."

The United States had not previously indicated that it would consider reducing to a level of 1,500 deployed warheads. Instead, Washington has publicly insisted that a START III agreement cap deployed warheads at a level of 2,000 to 2,500. But National Security Adviser Samuel Berger told The Washington Post at the end of April that the United States might consider lower START III levels within the context of ABM Treaty talks.


Russia Remains Resolute in Its Opposition to NMD

Moscow maintains it is not interested in amending the ABM Treaty. In its April 14 approval of START II, which cuts deployed U.S. and Russian strategic forces to no more than 3,500 deployed nuclear warheads each, the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, linked Moscow's future adherence to the arms reduction accord with Washington remaining party to the ABM Treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would withdraw from all arms control treaties, strategic and conventional, if the United States withdraws from the ABM Treaty.

In an April 25 statement to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned that collapse of the ABM Treaty would "undermine the entirety of disarmament agreements concluded over the last 30 years." He further warned that "compliance with the ABM Treaty in its present form without any modifications is a prerequisite for further negotiations on nuclear disarmament."

To counter what Washington considers rising missile threats posed by the so-called rogue states—an assessment not shared by Russia, China, and most other countries—Ivanov repeated a Russian proposal for a global missile confidence-building and non-proliferation regime. (See news story.) In addition, Ivanov and Putin have said that Russia is willing to discuss and cooperate on non-strategic missile defenses not prohibited by the ABM Treaty.

Following two days of talks in Washington to prepare for a June 4-5 Moscow summit between Clinton and Putin, Ivanov said on April 27 that he believes "there is a desire to find solutions to the issues where we differ." But Ivanov stated that "there are certain differences of view, sometimes considerable differences" between Moscow and Washington on U.S. NMD plans.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his remarks to the NPT conference, identified "pressure to deploy national missile defenses" as the most recent challenge facing nuclear disarmament. Annan cautioned that this pressure "could well lead to a new arms race...and create new incentives for missile proliferation." France, China, and other nations made strong statements in support of the ABM Treaty at the conference. (See news story.)


GOP Senators Warn Against Limited NMD

Based on administration briefings, 25 Republican senators—including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA), and Senator John McCain (R-AZ)—sent a letter April 17 to Clinton warning that they opposed "in the strongest terms the effort to conclude an agreement that would purchase Russian consent to the U.S. NMD system in exchange for U.S. reaffirmation of a new, very limiting, legally binding accord." Such an agreement, according to the letter, would have "little hope" of winning Senate approval.

A single NMD site, the Senate critics charged, "cannot effectively protect the United States." To defend against anticipated threats, "more than a single site is necessary," they wrote.

The senators criticized the administration's "phased approach" negotiating strategy as establishing a "permanent cycle of confrontation with Russia," and expressed concern that it would prevent deployment of other "promising missile defense technologies," such as space-based sensors, the Airborne Laser, and sea-based systems, all of which the senators believe are "necessary to achieve a fully-effective defense against the full range of possible threats."

Speaking before the Senate on April 26, Helms argued that Clinton's planned NMD will "leave the United States defenseless." Any modified ABM Treaty negotiated by the administration, according to Helms, will be "dead-on-arrival." He concluded by saying, "The Russian government should not be under any illusion whatsoever that any commitments made by this lame-duck administration will be binding on the next administration."

Secretary of Defense William Cohen, as well as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, responded that the administration would continue its efforts to win an ABM agreement. Cohen asserted that the president is "determined to go forward."

Though the leaked U.S. documents included a statement that Clinton is "counting on making the decision to deploy" the NMD system, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart insisted April 28 that no decision has been made. Lockhart reiterated that the president will base his decision on four oft-stated criteria: technological readiness, the maturity of the threat, cost, and arms control considerations.