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"[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
Finding the Right Path

October 2000

By Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

President Bill Clinton's September 1 decision to defer deployment of a national missile defense was a win for all Americans. It was also a sober reminder that the complexities of the post-Cold War world demand carefully crafted foreign and defense policies, rather than soundbites about our armed forces. The key question was not simply whether a national missile defense was "technologically possible," as some Republicans argued, but rather—and rightly—whether moving at this time to deploy the specific system proposed by the Pentagon would make our country more secure, or less so.

President Clinton did not give up on missile defense, but he steered clear of the pitfalls we would have encountered if we had moved to deploy a system that did not yet work, had yet to gain allied support or Russian agreement to amend the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and could not be deployed by 2005 in any case. The president's decision was a logical response to the technical and international challenges that a national missile defense faces.

Consider the technical challenges. The proposed national missile defense had hit its target only once in three tries. Even on that occasion, the interceptor first became disoriented and then found the target only by homing in on the much brighter balloon decoy that it was programmed to recognize. An enemy would be unlikely to provide such a cooperative target. Both opponents and supporters of a national missile defense have warned, moreover, that the initial system could be defeated by countermeasures. The September 1999 National Intelligence Estimate on the ballistic missile threat to the United States confirmed that countermeasures were within the capabilities of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.

In June, General Larry Welch's independent review team reaffirmed the deployment readiness review criteria of "two successful intercepts, one of which must be an Integrated System Test." With the failure of the July 8 test, neither of those criteria was satisfied. As Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said, "We have more engineering work to do." In an August interview with "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Philip Coyle, the director of the Pentagon's office of operational testing and evaluation, said, "We'll need to do a new test.... It will probably delay the timetable another six months or so." Predictably, the next test was delayed, as program personnel studied how to avoid the glitches that were making the reliability of missile defense as big an issue as its feasibility.

The Welch panel also reaffirmed that the prerequisites for next year's second program milestone included a system flight test employing "an integrated production configuration booster." The panel noted that an eight-month slip in booster availability "will probably require an adjustment in the...schedule" for that second milestone. Two months later, it was disclosed that development of a booster rocket for the national missile defense was in fact a full year behind schedule. According to Coyle, at the rate the program was going, "We'll be a couple of years behind in 2005."

Welch's first review panel had feared a "rush to failure." Last November, even after the deployment schedule had been stretched by two years, the second Welch panel warned against an "emphasis on near-term deployment readiness at the expense of properly completing the development activities needed for a system that meets the stated operational need." In his "NewsHour" interview, Coyle sounded a similar warning: "If the program managers are focused more on schedule than they are on performance, in the long run performance suffers; the program ends up costing more and actually taking longer." In a memo to the secretary of defense a few days later, Coyle advised that "test results so far do not support a recommendation at this time to deploy in 2005."

The international challenges to deploying the Pentagon's proposed national missile defense were equally daunting. On August 10, The New York Times reported that a new National Intelligence Estimate on the international impact of deploying our proposed national missile defense warned "that deploying an American national missile defense could prompt China to expand its nuclear arsenal tenfold and lead Russia to place multiple warheads on ballistic missiles that now carry only one." That story said that "the effects of an American decision to build a nuclear defense would ripple around the globe from Europe to South Asia" and that "China could deploy up to 200 warheads by 2015, prompting India and Pakistan to respond with their own buildups." The Washington Post reported on the same day that "the study cites Russian opposition to the antimissile shield as a complicating factor in future nonproliferation and arms control efforts, and it says European concerns could strain the Atlantic alliance."

These warnings confirmed concerns that many of us had raised regarding the impact of deployment on our overall national security. Renewed Russian reliance on MIRVed ICBMs, which are banned by START II, would pose real risks to crisis stability. Multiple warheads make one's missiles a logical target of an enemy's first strike, even if that requires two-on-one targeting. The state with MIRVed ICBMs knows this, so it plans on either a pre-emptive strike or a launch while the enemy's missiles are actually on the way. Such a "hair-trigger" alert status increases the risk of an accidental war. The moth-eaten state of Russia's current missile-warning systems increases that risk further. The president had to question whether the United States would really be more secure if our limited missile defense were to lead Russia to end the START process and rely upon ICBMs with multiple warheads. In addition, deployment of a national missile defense without Russian agreement to modify the ABM Treaty could undermine vital non-proliferation efforts. Russia might well see the world's troublemakers as its only friends and proceed to undercut international non-proliferation regimes.

China might do the same, even if Russia were reconciled to a U.S. deployment. For years, China has pursued a strategic doctrine of "minimum deterrence," relying on its 18 ICBMs that can reach the United States and destroy our major cities. We can tell Russia that 100 or 200 interceptors would not threaten its deterrent capability, but even our initial deployment would undermine China's deterrent.

How would China react and how would their reaction affect the actions of other countries? China is modernizing its nuclear forces, and some say that our deployment of a missile defense would not affect its decisions. It appears that intelligence analysts concluded, however, that a national missile defense would lead China to deploy still more warheads so as to maintain its nuclear deterrent. Many outside experts foresee a ripple effect on India and Pakistan. In addition, if China were to vastly increase its strategic nuclear forces, it might decide to MIRV its missiles. Some experts believe that to do that, China would resume nuclear testing. That would put a stake through the heart of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and perhaps the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well.

Allied reaction to our abrogating or withdrawing from the ABM Treaty could also be severe. Even when they understood our concerns, our allies told us that retaining the treaty was crucial. Would our European allies go along with locating ABM radars on their soil if they saw us as undermining arms control? On July 25, Secretary of Defense William Cohen warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that "in order to have a technologically effective system, we need to have the support of our allies." He also said, "You can't get the support of the allies unless you at least try to work it out with the Russians."

On one level, then, the president's decision was simple. Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, the vision of an initial deployment by 2005 was fast fading away. Why risk major international repercussions by pouring concrete in Alaska, when a one- or two-year delay would have no real impact on the eventual deployment date? What made the choice difficult—and made President Clinton's decision courageous—was the political context. It took guts to do the right thing, knowing that the other party would call any sensible decision a sign of failure, as Governor George Bush of Texas and other partisans promptly did. A welcome exception was Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), a missile defense supporter, who issued a press release following the president's announcement that said, "The President made the right decision today."

One line in President Clinton's September 1 speech at Georgetown University summarized the missile defense challenge for the next administration: "We should use this time to ensure that NMD, if deployed, would actually enhance our overall national security." How can America best do that? According to Senator Hagel:

Decisions on missile defense cannot develop in a vacuum. The effort to build a national missile defense must move forward on four parallel tracks—technology, Congress, our allies, and the Russians.... All of these must converge at roughly the same time. There will be dangerous consequences for America and the world if we rush to meet arbitrary deadlines and leave one or more of the tracks incomplete.

Is there a future for national missile defense? I remain a skeptic, but I would not reject the idea for all time. Rather, I believe that further political transformation is needed first. After the Cold War, we moved from extensive great power conflict to a posture of careful cooperation and mutual assistance. We must achieve still greater international consensus on strategic issues, however, before the world can move safely to national missile defenses.

We must recognize Russia's interest in maintaining strategic stability, its need to do that at sharply reduced force levels, and its fear of a dramatic loss of status internationally. Intense consultations led Russian President Vladimir Putin to acknowledge a potential ballistic missile threat. We should continue to bring Russia along, rather than just pulling out of the ABM Treaty.

We should also pursue seriously Russia's boost-phase intercept proposals. These have yet to be presented coherently and may not be workable. They would be less useful for us than for Russia or Western Europe, which are vulnerable to threats from shorter-range missiles than those that we would face. But Russia's proposals are a base upon which we may build an agreed approach to national missile defense. A cooperative NATO-Russian missile defense could knit Russia into a Western defense framework. This could transform Russia's role in the world from that of a revisionist force to that of a state pursuing its interests within a common security framework.

Transforming our relations with China is equally challenging. Bates Gill of the Brookings Institution has suggested that China and the United States might be able to agree to limit both China's strategic weapons and our defenses, especially if we were to adopt scientist Richard Garwin's boost-phase intercept approach to national missile defense. That will not be easy, given China's resentment over our insistence that Taiwan's future be determined peacefully. A strategic arms agreement would offer China significant reassurance, however, and would confer symbolic acceptance of China's role as a great power. As there are also good technological reasons to pursue Garwin's proposal, it might well make sense to explore an agreement with China that would reconcile it to our deployment of such a system.

Most importantly, we should pursue diplomatic options to lessen or remove the long-range ballistic missile threat. Russia and China can do more to encourage North Korea to back away from its long-range missile development and export programs. There are good reasons not to take at face value North Korean proposals and demands, but there are far better reasons to pursue the missile issue with help from other countries. Were the North Korean threat to be removed, we would gain much more time in which to develop and test the best technological approach and to bring other countries along.

National missile defense sparks a debate between our fears and our hopes. We rightly fear a world in which Third World dictators might threaten us with long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Those who see no hope of transforming that world seek salvation in technology, even though this could bring further instability as the world reacts to our actions. In fact, however, our development of missile defense technology and our serious consideration of whether to deploy an initial national defense have captured the world's attention and made it aware of the ballistic missile threat. Now we should capitalize on that success by pursuing cooperative efforts among the nuclear powers and regional leaders to alleviate the missile threat—and then, if necessary, build an international consensus to protect against those threats that cannot be removed.

We cannot ignore missile defense technology any more than we can ignore the missile and weapons technology that prompted our search for a defense. As President Clinton said, however, this technology must serve our broader national security interests. Future generations will judge us not by whether we deployed the first possible missile defense, but rather by what sort of world we left them. We must focus on our real objective, a world of strategic stability and great power cooperation. Thus may we master ballistic missile defense rather than being slaves to it.