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Toward an Agreement With Russia on Missile Defense
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On March 31, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) delivered the keynote address at the 28th annual luncheon and membership meeting of the Arms Control Association. Senator Levin, who is the ranking minority member on the Armed Services Committee, spoke about the upcoming presidential decision on whether the United States should deploy a limited national missile defense (NMD) system.

Referencing the criteria President Clinton has said will factor into his decision this summer, Senator Levin said that the United States should assume there will be a threat from ballistic missiles; that if a national missile defense would enhance U.S. security, the cost is affordable; and that while the technology is clearly not yet ready, the system will work "sooner or later." Senator Levin spent most of his speech discussing the strategic ramifications of deploying a missile defense and examining the possibility that a cooperative arrangement could be reached with the Russians that would allow for a limited U.S. national missile defense while reducing the number of deployed strategic weapons below START II levels.

The following is an edited version of Senator Levin's remarks and the question-and-answer period that followed.

You folks in the Arms Control Association have played a leading role in explaining and defending the value of arms control to our security, and it is a real pleasure to join you here today.

I want to focus on the subject that I think you've spent most of your morning on, which is national missile defense, because I believe that this issue will have a greater impact on our national security than any other security issue that we are looking at this year or for many years. Our relations with Russia, with China, with other countries, and the future of arms control hang in the balance. It is a very complex issue, and it requires some very difficult diplomacy and some bipartisan congressional attention if we are going to reach the right outcome. This national missile defense is a limited national missile defense, unlike Star Wars of the olden days; it is intended to be able to knock down a few missiles coming in from states sometimes called "rogue" states, such as North Korea and Iran. The critical bottom-line question, which we must answer before deciding whether to deploy, is whether or not the deployment of that system will make us more or less secure.

There are three groups in the Senate on the issue of deploying a national missile defense. One group says we should deploy national missile defense under any circumstances. There is a second group that says we should not deploy national missile defense at all—that is, there are no circumstances that should drive us to deploy a national missile defense. The third group believes that we should deploy national missile defense only under the right circumstances. So you have the "any circumstances" group, the "no circumstances" group, and then you have the "right circumstances" group. And that last group is the group where I place myself.

What are the right circumstances, in my judgment? What are the criteria? There are four criteria which President Clinton has, in my judgment, correctly identified in deciding whether or not to take the next step toward deployment—a decision this year to proceed. I want to emphasize here that we are talking about deployment. We're not talking about developing a system. There is almost unanimity on the question of developing a national missile defense. Very few of us oppose that. But there is a very strong division on the question of whether or not we should commit to deploy or take a step which would move us clearly down that road this year.

Probably the clear majority favor making that commitment at this time. It's not a two-thirds majority, but probably a majority of the members of the Senate, if voting today on that issue, would say that we should make that decision to deploy. Somewhere between 50 and 55 senators would probably vote that way if given that question.

The four criteria are the threat, the cost of the system, the operational effectiveness of the system (which is Pentagonese for whether or not it works), and the impact of deployment on our national security, including the impact on nuclear arms reduction, on proliferation, and on our alliances.

The first criterion is the threat. I think that we should assume that there is going to be a threat of a ballistic missile attack. Our Intelligence Community tells us that this threat will exist. North Korea could have the capability, in their judgment, in the near future. Here we are talking about technical capability from nations such as North Korea and Iran and whether it will emerge in the next few years. It is both the Intelligence Community's assessment and it's an assessment that is commonly accepted in Congress that this threat will emerge. I also believe that that threat will emerge.

But you can't stop there. It doesn't answer the question about threats in a number of ways. Because the threat is emerging now, it may be less of a threat a year or two from now if by some chance— and I think it's long odds against it—North Korea moves in a different direction within the next few years. The same thing is possible, unlikely but possible, with Iran.

But there are also other threats that we have to look at and assess their likelihood. The reality is that today North Korea could deliver a weapon of mass destruction using a truck or a ship. An NMD system would only give us a defense against an additional means of delivery: a long-range—I emphasize long-range—ballistic missile. We already have, both in place and in the works, defenses against short-range and medium-range missiles: theater ballistic missiles. And there isn't much of a dispute about that. There may have been years ago, but no longer. We have a Patriot system that gives us a defense, imperfect but improving, against short-range theater missiles, and there seems not to be a lot of argument about whether we should be able to defend against short-range missiles.

While we're talking about long-range missiles, we also ought to get back to an understanding that it is not just a long-range missile that can deliver a weapon of mass destruction. A nation or a terrorist individual or a group of terrorists could attack us with weapons of mass destruction using non-missile means. As a matter of fact, the Intelligence Community believes that non-missile attacks with weapons of mass destruction are more likely than ballistic missile attacks against our nation.

Here's what the CIA said recently about this issue: "We project that in the coming years, U.S. territory is probably more likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction from non-missile delivery means (most likely from non-state entities) than by missiles, primarily because non-missile delivery means are less costly and more reliable and more accurate. They can also be used without attribution." In other words, with non-missile delivery, you don't know where they come from, they don't have a return address like a missile does. A truck is less costly, more reliable, more accurate and you don't know where it comes from if the person wants to hide where it's coming from.

Today we have porous borders. A few months ago, 1,400 people were arrested in one state in one night. Imagine how many crossed without being arrested. In December, in the state of Washington, one person, who we believe was a terrorist, was caught trying to go across the border with bomb-making equipment. How many are not caught? What is their capability to put together a non-missile means of delivery of a chemical or a biological weapon?

So, the first issue is the threat. Is there a threat in the years ahead of a ballistic missile being in the possession of North Korea or Iran? Yes. Should we take that into consideration? Yes. Should we put that on the scale with all the other threats and means of delivery for weapons of mass destruction? In my judgment, the answer is yes.

Secondly, the cost. It is certainly going to be more than current estimates suggest, perhaps $25-50 billion. But, if the system improves our security, in my judgment we can afford the cost.

The third criterion is operational effectiveness. As former Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch and the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Phil Coyle have made clear, the current NMD program is a high-risk program with a highly compressed schedule. Although the next flight test has been delayed from late April to late June, and the deployment readiness review of the Department of Defense has been delayed from June to July, the general in charge of this program [Lieutentant General Ronald Kadish] has acknowledged that the program remains high risk. But, I'm reasonably confident that sooner or later we're going to be able to make this system work. By the time the Defense Department conducts their readiness review in July, there is no likelihood that we're going to have an operationally effective system, but the Defense Department may decide that there is enough progress that it will recommend that we should take the next steps toward deployment. Under any circumstances, we should not make a decision to deploy until we are confident we will have an operationally effective system.

This gets to the fourth criterion: the impact of deployment on our national security. This is the central question. If we are unable to negotiate modifications to the ABM Treaty with Russia, and if we decided unilaterally to withdraw from the treaty, our unilateral withdrawal would be a major rip in our relationship with Russia. As much as Russia objected to the expansion of NATO, that expansion did not violate a treaty with Russia. We didn't have a treaty with Russia saying we would not expand NATO. We do have a treaty with Russia saying that we will not deploy national missile defenses. Unilateral action on our part to withdraw from the ABM Treaty to deploy a national missile defense would be a truly watershed moment in the relations between the United States, the West, and Russia—and probably China as well.

Russia's great military strength is dependent, at the moment, on nuclear weapons. In her current view, these weapons' value will be put at risk by an NMD system. The loss of strength and the loss of self-esteem by this uneasy sleeping giant would have major ramifications for world peace and stability. Russia's response to a unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty by the United States could make us and the world far less secure than the existence of a handful of North Korean missiles. For instance, Russia could end its nuclear arms reductions and its eliminations. With more nuclear weapons on its soil, the risks of nuclear proliferation would increase. In January, four Russian soldiers were arrested for allegedly stealing nuclear fuel. Fortunately, this time, the soldiers were reportedly apprehended before they could divert this deadly material.

A unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty could divide us from our allies, who might see us entering into a new arms race or cold war with Russia. Great Britain, for instance, where key radars are planned for the national missile defense system, would not be protected by our national missile defense, but would be a more likely target of an enemy attack because of the presence of our radars on their soil. The same is true of Denmark with radars in Greenland. NATO countries have urged us to go slow before making any deployment decision and not to decouple our decision from the defense of Europe. In other words, not to enhance our defense at their expense.

No country, not even Russia, can have a veto over an issue affecting our national security. But if we are serious about wanting to modify the ABM Treaty to allow the deployment of a limited NMD system, then we should realize that it may take more than a few months for President Putin to formulate his administration's negotiating position and reach agreement with us on modifying the ABM treaty. That does not leave much time for negotiations.

There is another obvious problem with our current schedule for a deployment decision. That is that the decision is scheduled in the middle of a presidential election year here, and that makes it likely that the issue will be politicized. Candidates will be pigeon-holed into the first or second groups that I mentioned at the outset of my remarks—being for or against deployment—rather than deciding whether or not the right circumstances have arrived to warrant deployment.

A decision to deploy a limited NMD system is too important to be made based on a single test, to be subjected to the ups and downs of a presidential campaign, or to be constrained by an artificial timetable. The stakes that are involved in this decision are simply enormous. They will affect our national security and our relations with other countries for decades to come. Unless and until we are confident that deployment of an NMD system will make us more secure, we should not deploy. Achieving that confidence level by this summer is surely unlikely at best. And when you put the current anything-but-normal presidential campaign in the mix, the unlikely becomes remote.

I have not called at this time for a delay in the NMD deployment decision. The reason is that I don't think that will increase our chances for reaching agreement with Russia on modifying the ABM Treaty to permit a limited NMD system while preserving strategic stability and continuing nuclear arms reductions. That is what I believe our goal should be. And that is a key question for each of you: whether or not you believe that it is in our security interest to move cooperatively, mutually with Russia toward modification of the ABM Treaty to permit deployment of a limited NMD system.

If you do believe that, if you have reached that conclusion—not that we're necessarily ready to do it technologically, but that it is in our interest that we move cooperatively with Russia to modify the ABM Treaty to permit the deployment of such a system—then it seems to me the question becomes: when would be the best time to achieve that modification? I believe that despite the pressures that I have indicated, we have perhaps the best chance in the next few months to achieve a modification to this treaty. If you ask me for evidence, words that come out of the mouths of Russians for instance, I cannot quote those words. It is my belief, being familiar with the scene, being familiar with the dynamics, knowing what the negotiators have tried to do, and what the responses are, that it is worth trying now to achieve a modification so that we can move cooperatively with Russia to modify this treaty. The chances of achieving this in this administration are greater than they are likely to be next year, regardless of who the president is.

We should not assume, for instance, that any modification of the ABM Treaty would be ratified by the U.S. Senate. That is a major assumption. But I would like each of you to think about this question: if there were a negotiated modification in the ABM Treaty, particularly if combined with an agreement on further nuclear arms reductions, a START III reduction; if we were able to negotiate in the next few months both the modification to permit the limited national missile defense and significant further nuclear arms reductions, would you not be urging ratification of that agreement? That is the question that I put to each of you. Think about that possibility. It may be unlikely. But if it happened, if I were standing here right now and the administration had just negotiated a modification to permit a site in Alaska with a possible Phase II for a site in North Dakota down the road; and if I told you that the Russians have agreed to that, and that we had agreed to a significant reduction in a START III deal of nuclear weapons; if I were here saying that is now coming before the Senate next week, and we need your help to get this ratified, would you not be there helping that ratification to be a reality? I think you would, but that is something that I would hope you'd think about.

But if I'm right, that that's what you would be doing, then the question that you must ask yourself is whether or not trying to achieve that goal is not the right goal, whether this is not the right time to try to achieve that goal with this administration, despite the fact that we have these constraints that I've outlined. Those are the main issues. Do you want to modify, do you want to move cooperatively, or do you want to throw this into the next administration which could well be an administration which is driven now mainly by people, in my judgment, who think that the ABM Treaty should be trashed; who, rather than seeking modification to the treaty, want it thrown away; who then want us to withdraw rather than modify. If that is at least the possible result of delay, then before that option is pursued, should we not seek the other route, which I favor, of seeking modification combined with reductions of nuclear weapons in a START III mode?

So, whatever the answers to those questions are, I think we would all agree—and I know that you have spent a lot of time on this subject, as an organization and individually—that this is a major debate for this country. I hope that enough time can be spent on this by all of the people who are involved, including those either running for president or advising them, in order to avoid having the debate, which is certainly the first great security debate of the 21st century, lead to a dangerous confrontation with a nuclear-armed and very suspicious great power. That could very well be the result if we do not move cooperatively at this time to try to achieve both the treaty modification and the reduction of nuclear arms that I've outlined. [Back to top]

Questions and Answers

Question: If the Russians do not agree to this "grand bargain," as some have called it, what would the other options be?

Levin: I don't want to commit myself now to saying what we're going to do if these steps don't work because what we do will depend on a number of factors, including an assessment of all the factors I mentioned, plus some other ones. Right now, the timing of the decision is being driven by a CIA assessment that North Korea could have a long-range missile capability in the near future, and by a desire to be able to deploy an NMD system as soon as it is operationally effective, now planned for 2005. You work backward from that point as to how long will it take to construct the radar in Alaska, plus six-months notice if you are going to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. That timetable is what is driving us toward making a decision now.

But we haven't gotten the contractor's assessment yet as to how long it will take to build the radar in Alaska—we only have a Defense Department assessment. What happens, for instance, if it doesn't take as long as the Pentagon says? Say instead of taking three years, you can do it in two. That gives you an extra year. And there's another major issue. Notice must be given six months before the point you take an action that would otherwise violate the treaty—presumably when we build a radar. When is that point? When does the construction of a radar begin? Does it begin when you dig a hole? Does it begin when you pour cement? Does it begin when you put some superstructure on that cement? Does it begin when have something which is electronically capable inside that superstructure? Depending on that issue, depending on the assessment of all that, you may be able to say honestly that we have not reached the point where we are constructing this until we have done something which clearly to every observer constitutes the building of a radar.

My point is that there are a lot of other factors that I haven't even mentioned, including those two, on the question of whether you really reach the point this year where you have to make the decision if you are unable to negotiate the modification of the ABM Treaty and agree to further reductions of nuclear arms.

Question: The possible deal you have presented might have many advantages, but it strikes me as a Faustian bargain. Naturally, the reduction of the level of Russian warheads is attractive. On the other hand, it seems clear that the conclusion of an amendment of the ABM Treaty to permit deployment of U.S. missile defenses will place a floor on further Russian reductions in the long term, motivate the increase of Chinese forces, and create a situation where we have large U.S., Russian, and Chinese nuclear arsenals indefinitely, thus providing the strongest possible motivation for further proliferation.

Levin: Any course of action has real risks. I don't think that this proposal is any more Faustian than the other course of action, which likely would be—no matter who the president is, given the sentiment of the Congress—the deployment of a system without a cooperative deal with the Russians. I think that is a worse situation in terms of proliferation, for instance, than the one I'm suggesting.

Now, if such a deal were worked out—and I'm not saying it's likely—I don't think it would set a floor because if we can gain confidence with each other—and we would have to include other countries in this process as well—over time you can not only reduce the number of warheads further, you can also reduce defenses. Just because you have a radar doesn't mean you have a radar forever. Just as Russia has had defenses and removed them, we've had defenses that we've removed. So I don't think that it's a floor, logically, and I believe the alternative to trying to work this out is far worse because there is likely to be an uncooperative deployment instead of a cooperative deployment. Those are the two likely results.

There is a third possibility: even though there is no agreement, there is no deployment. A president could decide that the world is free of the Iranian- or North Korean-type threats, and that there is no need for a defense. I think that is the least likely of the three alternatives, but it is possible.

Question: You wouldn't reject that alternative?

Levin: No, not at all. That's basically why I think we should not make a decision to deploy now. We ought to save such a decision for a time when we are confident that we will have a system that is operationally effective and when we've assessed all the threats. We can't do that now. We shouldn't do that now. It's premature to do that when we're trying to negotiate modifications with the Russians and before we have a system that comes close to being operationally effective.

Question: What are the prospects for going down to 1,500 weapons as part of an agreement with the Russians, and what are the prospects that that would be acceptable to the Senate?

Levin: I think it is a possibility, but I would hate to give you an answer that is overly simplistic. You've asked me two questions. One is a security question and the other one is a political question. What do we really "need" in effect? What can we go down to? The second question is: what would be supported? What would be the opposition to it politically?

The number of weapons that are required to achieve a particular mission depends upon the guidance that is given to you. How many command posts do you want to be able to wipe out? How many airfields? How many of all of the various structures and institutions and everything else that you are trying to threaten do you have to threaten in order to deter?

Before he went to the [1997] summit in Helsinki, the president was given the number 2,000-2,500 by his advisors, but that number was a reflection of the guidance that he gave to the people who gave him the number. Now it has been 10 years since the Cold War ended, and my judgment is that that guidance may be out of date. But I'm not the president. I'm not the one that signs the presidential decision directive. My instinct is that you don't need 2,000-2,500 nuclear weapons to deter. I think we all have some idea what just one of these weapons could do.

On the political side, I think you can sustain a lower number politically provided that number is viewed not as a political number, but as a security number coming from the people responsible for security planning. If the Pentagon concludes, based on the president's guidance, that they can do their job with 1,500 nuclear weapons, then I believe that it would have political support. But if it is viewed as something that is done politically, it will not have the kind of support that it should.

Question: Do you think your grand design could be ratified? Based on some recent events, like the CTBT debate, there doesn't seem to be a lot of bipartisanship on a lot of these issues. Do you think there is a chance of re-establishing that?

Levin: I think it would be ratifiable, if two things happened. First, the president would have to work very hard and very early to involve Republicans in whatever discussions and negotiations were going on. I believe that is happening now. There is a greater effort now to keep Republicans informed than there was for CTBT. Second, the issue can't become too caught up in the politics of the presidential campaign. If the candidates are forced into positions by their supporters—if, for example, Governor Bush says "If the Russians don't do such and such by a certain date, we're going to rip up the treaty and deploy not just a limited defense, but space-based and sea-based as well"—positions could harden and move further away from each other. Hopefully, the presidential campaign will not lead to a further distance between the various sides.

Is there a chance for greater bipartisanship? I believe there is. We learned some lessons with CTBT. The people who opposed it learned that the public really wants it, and I think that many of them are uncomfortable with the outcome. The proof of that—and never forget this—is that 62 senators asked the majority leader, Senator Lott, to delay that vote. That means that 24 Republicans urged their leader not to force the vote on CTBT at that time. Now, when they were forced to vote, all but a few ended up voting against the treaty, but my point is that there was an instinct on the part of a significant number of Republicans that it was the wrong thing to do.

The other lesson, frankly, is for those of us who supported it. We made some mistakes, too. We were put into a position where we had to push hard to bring that treaty to the floor. We couldn't get a hearing in front of Senator Helms' committee [the Foreign Relations Committee]. So we said, we want this thing to come to a vote. We should have said we want it to come to a hearing, because Senator Lott, who was opposed to the treaty, said, "Oh, you want a vote on this thing? We'll give you a vote. Next week. No amendments." I guess they compromised with two amendments that were allowed by the end. That's not the way to deal with a treaty. There wasn't even a committee report. This may be the first time in Senate history that the Senate voted on a major treaty where there was no committee report. Partly, it was Senator Lott's tactically correct decision that if he forced the vote, he could defeat the treaty.

Those of us who favored this treaty learned that we have got to be a lot more nuanced and subtle and smart in dealing in this environment as to how we go about it. We should have pushed for a hearing first. We should have used our skills and our strength, whatever we could muster, to force that process and to allow for amendments. Senator Lott said bring it the floor next week, period. What about modifications, what about amendments, what about conditions, what about the other things that you try to do with treaties? We were lucky just to get two amendments. The process represented all of the things that the Senate should not be standing for. The Senate should be deliberate and thoughtful: hearing record, committee report, long debate. It should be able to consider conditions to the treaty, amendments to the treaty resolution of ratification. And in part that was the fault of those of us who supported the treaty because we weren't smart enough about precisely what we were pushing for.

Question: If the administration brought a proposal to Congress for a cooperative architecture between the United States and Russia, what would be the response?

Levin: I hope it would be positive. I've urged the administration indeed to look for at least parts of this system that they could develop cooperatively with Russians. They've explored some of those possibilities with the Russians. If you go back even to President Reagan, he even talked about giving Star Wars to the Soviet Union, which nobody believed, but that nonetheless broke the ice on the idea that somehow or other we could cooperatively move to defenses. It wasn't a particularly credible proposal, giving away technology to the Soviet Union. I didn't find it credible, and I don't think most people did. But the point is that it broke ice: the idea that somehow or other we could mutually be safer if we moved toward defenses.

Maybe it depends on who the president is. In the way that President Nixon could go to China, maybe if Governor Bush were elected president and proposed a cooperative architecture, I don't think there would be much difficulty. There would probably be a positive response. On the other hand, it would be less likely that he would propose that than a President Gore. But maybe not. The bottom line answer is I think it would get a positive result, hopefully, and there would be a good chance that there would be a positive result.

Question: Since most Republicans prefer a wider deployment of national missile defense, what chance would a deal with the Russians on a limited system have at ratification?

Levin: First, I don't know the precise numbers of Republicans that would come down one way or the other. The most vocal of the Republicans, I think, would oppose it. But there are a lot of Republicans, I believe, that would favor the modification of the ABM Treaty for a limited defense—including their candidate for president, who says that he favors a limited national missile defense. I think that just about every Democrat would. Assuming the same percentage in the next Senate, 45 Democrats and 55 Republicans, could we pick up 22 of the 55 to get the necessary 67? I think there would be a reasonable chance that we could do it even with a Democratic president.

But we should not assume that we could get this ratified. It would be a battle. That is why earlier in my comments I asked you the question whether or not you would be there with us to get it ratified. Because if I'm right that most of you in this room would be there to help ratify such a cooperative arrangement with Russia, both on ABM modification probably connected to nuclear arms reductions, then the question you need to face is: is that not the best road to try to walk? Yes, it would be tough, but I think doable. [Back to top]

Posted: April 1, 2000