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August 27, 2018
Clinton Says No to NMD As Program Lags; Cites Technology Doubts and Foreign Concerns

Wade Boese

Citing a lack of confidence in the technology and detailing continued international opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, President Bill Clinton announced September 1 that he would not authorize deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system. Clinton said that leaving the deployment decision to his successor would not significantly affect the date when the defense could be fielded—a recognition that the program has fallen behind schedule due to test failures and growing development delays.

Clinton made his remarks in a hastily arranged speech at Georgetown University the Friday before Labor Day weekend. Declaring that progress had been made in developing the defense, Clinton nevertheless said that the United States "should not move forward until we have absolute confidence that the system will work." While minimizing the cost issue and arguing that the emerging missile threat is "real," Clinton maintained that doubts about the technology and concerns about the international reaction warranted not deploying the system now.

In order to meet a system operational goal of 2005, Pentagon plans had required the president to let construction contracts this fall for preparatory work to start next summer at Shemya, an isolated Aleutian island where an advanced X-band radar essential to the NMD system would be based. Originally deemed a deployment decision, top Pentagon officials began downplaying the significance of Clinton's decision as program problems mounted during the summer. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 25, said that Clinton's decision would not be a deployment decision but simply a move to prepare the radar site. A decision on actually building the radar, Cohen asserted, would be taken by the next president.

Though it did not explicitly say so, Clinton's statement indicated the contracts would not be awarded this fall, according to Samuel Berger, the president's national security adviser. The president will not proceed "with activity that might be called predeployment activity," Berger told reporters at the White House later the same day.

Cohen, the leading NMD advocate in the administration, had reportedly pressed the president to award the contracts just days before Clinton's speech. Cohen released a statement after the announcement, saying he supported the president's approach of having the "next President fully involved in decisions regarding the future of the program."


Clinton Makes His Case

Clinton signed legislation in July 1999 making it the policy of the United States to deploy an "effective" national missile defense "as soon as is technologically possible," but a day after signing the NMD act, he declared that the new law did not constitute a final deployment decision. Instead, Clinton said that he would make a decision in the summer of 2000 whether to deploy the proposed system based on four criteria: technological readiness, the status of the threat, cost, and the impact on overall U.S. national security, including arms control.

In his September 1 speech, Clinton addressed these criteria, focusing on the technology and the strategic impact. He described the NMD technology as "promising" but declared that "the system as a whole is not yet proven." Clinton said that a successful intercept test (October 2, 1999) proved that it is possible "to hit a bullet with a bullet." Yet he noted the only other two intercept tests, conducted on January 18 and July 8 of this year, had failed and that questions about whether the system would be able to handle countermeasures, such as realistic decoys, remain unresolved.

Explaining that only three of 19 planned intercept attempts had been conducted and that the system's booster had not been tested at all, Clinton stressed the need for continued testing and authorized Cohen to continue with a "robust" testing and development program. "We need more tests against more challenging targets and more simulations before we can responsibly commit our nation's resources to deployment," Clinton stated.

Similar concerns about the realism of the NMD testing program had been raised in Congress earlier this summer when Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced an amendment to the national defense authorization act requiring the Pentagon to conduct tests against "realistic" countermeasures before declaring a missile defense operational. Although it had the support of Philip Coyle, director of the Pentagon's office of operational test and evaluation, the amendment was defeated 52-48 on July 13.

Turning to the strong international opposition to the proposed U.S. system, Clinton further argued that the United States should not move forward with deployment "until we have made every reasonable diplomatic effort to minimize the cost of deployment." Russia and China—the only two states with ICBMs capable of striking the continental United States—staunchly oppose the system and close NATO allies, led by France and Germany, worry that the system will strain the transatlantic alliance and halt or reverse progress in arms control.

While declaring that no country can have a veto over U.S. plans, Clinton cautioned, "We can never afford to overlook the fact that the actions and reactions of others in this increasingly interdependent world do bear on our security." Clinton warned that a deployment decision needs to avoid "stimulating an already dangerous regional nuclear capability from China to South Asia." In addition, Clinton admitted Washington "must" have allied support because U.S. plans call for stationing NMD elements on allies' territory. Britain and Greenland are designated as sites for forward-deployed radars.

Central to international opposition to the proposed U.S. defense is the fact that it would violate the 1972 ABM Treaty banning national defenses against strategic ballistic missiles. The Clinton administration has aggressively pursued negotiations with Russia to amend the accord to permit the limited defense, but Moscow has rejected all U.S. entreaties. Clinton, who does not want to abrogate the accord, stated his decision to put off deployment will allow more time to try to "narrow our differences with Russia." He deemed it would be "far better to move forward [with an NMD system] in the context of the ABM Treaty and allied support."

Though Cohen had testified that his understanding was that White House legal advisers agreed that an actual breach of the treaty would not occur until the radar rails, on which the radar would rotate, are laid, other administration officials reportedly disputed the secretary's testimony. Pentagon plans called for the rails to be added to the building foundation in 2002, but Berger said all talk of when the treaty would be violated by U.S. construction activity is "kind of mooted" by the president's decision.

Clinton declared the United States could not solely rely on a missile defense to protect itself from emerging ballistic missile threats—a strategy he characterized as "folly." Instead, the United States should "explore the frontiers of strategic defenses, while continuing to pursue arms control, to stand with our allies and to work with Russia and others to stop the spread of deadly weapons," Clinton concluded.

Defending his decision, Clinton noted that the system, according to experts, would not likely be ready until 2006 or 2007 and that his decision would not affect that timeline. Cohen, in his July 25 testimony, said he agreed with former Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch, who headed an independent panel that reviewed and reported on the NMD program three times, that the "realism" of the 2005 date had been called into question.


The NMD Program

Cohen's assessment reflected growing uncertainty surrounding the program in the wake of the NMD system's latest test failure. The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which oversees U.S. missile defense programs, is still conducting an analysis of what went wrong with the July 8 test. An early mishap in the booster stage prevented the defense from even attempting an intercept. (See ACT, July/August 2000.)

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon reported August 10 that the cause of the failure may have been a circuit board on the booster that did not signal the system's exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) to separate from the booster. Once separated, the EKV is designed to seek out and collide with an incoming target, though the kill vehicle failed to do so in a January 18 test due to a malfunction in its internal cooling system.

Although on August 8 Bacon characterized the Defense Department as being "pretty sure" as to why the booster did not send a signal in the last test, he said the Pentagon had not yet "figured out how to respond to it." While Cohen testified that the next test, scheduled for October or November, could slip to December, the Pentagon now believes the test may take place in January.

The booster model that failed in the July 8 test is not the booster intended for use in the completed NMD system. Development of the actual booster is more than eight months behind schedule, and, according to Bacon, the delay is continuing to grow.

Scheduled for its first solo flight test last April, the booster may not be tested until next spring and will not be used in an actual intercept test until flight-test 8, one test later than originally planned. Those plans could also change because BMDO still intends to hold three solo flight tests of the booster before integrating it into an actual intercept test. Including the July 8 test, there have been five flight tests of the NMD system to date, three of which have been intercept attempts.

According to a BMDO spokesman, a number of issues are slowing construction of the actual booster. Installing a control system to stabilize the interceptor during the "burning" of its first of three boosters is one challenge and devising a system to lessen the booster's vibrations on the EKV is another. In a report last November, the Welch panel expressed concern that the EKV would not be able to handle the more severe vibrations of the actual higher-acceleration booster as opposed to the lesser vibrations of the current surrogate booster.

The Boeing company, which is contracted with managing the NMD program, released an August 10 statement declaring that it had only received half of a potential bonus it could have earned for the November 1999 to April 2000 period. The halved bonus signaled the Pentagon's displeasure with the prolonged booster development, as well as delays in delivery of software for conducting simulations of intercept tests. "We are dissatisfied and disappointed with our performance," the company stated. A Boeing spokesperson would not comment on the value of the bonus lost, though a company official said it can be earned back.

Earlier, on August 4, the company reassigned its manager of the NMD program to another position, explaining the move as a "transition" in the program from development to testing. The company has not named a permanent replacement.