President Clinton will make the most important security decision of his presidency when he determines later this year whether or not to deploy a limited national missile defense (NMD). With the failure of the latest test and the absence of a credible threat, there is no basis for a decision to deploy. When the extremely serious negative consequences of deployment are considered, there is every reason to explicitly reject deployment now and not simply defer the decision to the next administration.
Upon signing legislation making it U.S. policy to deploy an "effective" NMD as soon as "technologically possible," Clinton wisely stated that he would consider technical progress, the threat, system costs, and the impact on arms control objectives. It is now clear that none of the four criteria supports a deployment decision.
Quite aside from the test debacle, technical progress does not begin to support a responsible deployment decision. Testing has had to rely on surrogate components under limited and unrealistic conditions. The Pentagon's own advisory group under retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch has labeled the program "high risk," saying that demonstration of "readiness to deploy" is not possible until 2003 at the earliest. The program directors themselves acknowledge the program is high risk. More fundamentally, independent technical critics argue persuasively that, even if the NMD system "works," it could be easily defeated by simple available decoys.
The ICBM threat from so-called rogue states has been grossly exaggerated, with a worst-case technical capability increasingly being identified as an expected development. Even
in the unlikely event it developed the capability, the likelihood that a poverty-stricken, isolated North Korea would attack, or threaten to attack, the United States, thereby assuring its own obliteration, is so remote as to lack credibility. In the real world, North Korea has recently declared a moratorium on long-range missile flight tests, begun negotiations with South Korea, and is clearly interested in trading its missile program for the right price. Concurrently, Iran has taken steps toward a more democratic and open society, and the inter-national community has found a new consensus in seeking to monitor any Iraqi efforts to revive its largely destroyed ballistic missile program. Significantly, the State Department has quietly substituted "state of concern" for the contemptuous appellation of "rogue state."
While the United States could afford the proposed program, it would present taxpayers with a substantial financial commitment, estimated at some $36 billion for the first phase and more than $60 billion for the complete limited NMD. That would be a substantial outlay for a system that would probably not work against an extremely unlikely threat, and based on past experience, those costs would probably double.
However, the real cost of deployment would be the significant adverse consequences to U.S. security. The entire arms control framework, painstakingly developed over the past three decades, would be endangered, and future negotiated reductions in the Russian nuclear arsenal, which were also mandated by the NMD legislation, would probably be halted for the foreseeable future. Russia has adamantly refused to amend the ABM Treaty to permit the proposed limited NMD deployment because it sees this action as a slippery slope leading to the demise of the treaty, which it holds is the key to strategic stability. President Vladimir Putin has even threatened to withdraw from existing strategic arms agreements if the United States withdraws from the ABM Treaty. China, which is convinced that the limited NMD system is intended to negate its deterrent, has denounced the project and can be expected to respond by accelerating and expanding its strategic modernization program. This in turn would probably stimulate an Indian reaction, leading to an arms race in South Asia with Chinese support for Pakistan.
A deployment decision would also be a major blow to U.S. leadership in the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Non-nuclear-weapon states would hold the United States in clear violation of its obligation under Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) despite Washington's specific recommitment at the recent NPT review conference to preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty. After a year of frenetic efforts, U.S. officials have failed to reassure Russia and China as to U.S. intentions or to obtain any foreign support for a limited NMD. Even our NATO allies have reacted very negatively to the proposed deployment, which they see as undercutting efforts to improve relations with Russia and raising serious questions as to true U.S. motives.
When the deployment issue reaches his desk, President Clinton should not abdicate his presidential responsibility by deferring the decision to his successor. Heeding President Harry Truman's declaration that "the buck stops here," Clinton should, on the basis of his own criteria, explicitly reject deployment, as well as initiation of construction that would widely be seen as endorsing a future decision to deploy.