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Top Pentagon Officials Make Case for Layered Missile Defense

Wade Boese

While the Bush administration is continuing its review of U.S. missile defense options, the Pentagon's top two officials in March revealed a clear preference for a future layered missile defense unconstrained by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

In an interview published March 18 in The London Sunday Telegraph, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, appeared to be making the case for a layered defense consisting of multiple types of anti-ballistic missile systems, including sea-based systems. Wolfowitz asserted that "the best thing is to attack a missile several different ways" because that approach maximizes the chances of intercepting it. Rumsfeld added that that was the reason "people say that eventually one would anticipate that you'd have something that would be not a single system, but a layered system with flexibility and some redundancy."

In the interview, Wolfowitz said the "most attractive" time to shoot down a missile is when it is in the boost phase, which is when it is moving most slowly and its rocket engines are still firing, making it an easier target. The deputy secretary suggested that a sea-based missile interceptor would be "very effective" for boost-phase intercepts and stated that there is nothing "physically" preventing an anti-strategic ballistic missile from being stationed on a ship. (A Pentagon review recently reported that there is no near-term sea-based NMD option. See Pentagon Report Highlights Hurdles for Missile Defenses.)

As a presidential candidate last year, President George W. Bush campaigned against the Clinton administration's proposed limited national missile defense (NMD), which would initially consist of 20 ground-based missile interceptors stationed in Alaska to protect the U.S. homeland from strategic ballistic missile attacks. Bush described the system as "flawed" and said his administration would look into different technologies and deploy effective missile defenses "at the earliest possible date" with an expanded mission of protecting U.S. friends and allies in addition to U.S. territory and troops.

Rumsfeld asserted in the March 18 interview that the Clinton administration did "no real work" on missile defense because it had only one approach—developing a ground-based system—with the aim of staying "broadly" within the ABM Treaty. Rumsfeld said that would not be the case with the Bush administration, explaining, "We've asked our people to look at missile defense unconstrained by the [ABM] Treaty."

The 1972 ABM Treaty and its 1974 protocol proscribed nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles but permitted 100 missile interceptors at a single site for a limited regional defense. The treaty further outlawed the development, testing, or deployment of sea-, air-, space-, and mobile land-based systems or components, thereby limiting permissible defenses against strategic missiles to ground-based designs.

Rumsfeld, who characterized the treaty as "ancient history" at his Senate confirmation hearing, declared in the interview that he does not see the accord as "having a central role in strategic stability." He said that at some point the United States would need to make changes to the treaty. As a candidate, Bush said that he would withdraw from the treaty if Russia did not accept U.S. proposals for amending the accord to permit a U.S. missile defense deployment. Russia rejected all Clinton efforts to amend the treaty.

At his February 27 confirmation hearing, Wolfowitz testified that the United States, hopefully with Russian cooperation, needs to relax ABM Treaty restrictions, explaining his view that U.S. NMD development over the past 10 years would have been very different "if the ABM Treaty hadn't been there or if it had been modified." According to Wolfowitz, the administration wants to "find the most effective, least expensive, and least provocative way" of developing a defense.

Earlier in the month, Rumsfeld reaffirmed Bush's campaign pledge that whatever missile defense system is pursued, the objective will be to protect all 50 U.S. states, deployed U.S. troops, and U.S. allies. Speaking on March 8, Rumsfeld declared that he no longer thought of missile defense in terms of "national" and "theater" systems. According to Rumsfeld, this purpose of such a unified approach is to avoid creating "significant differentials in vulnerabilities" between the United States and its allies. "One has to recognize that it's every bit as important to us…and to have our allies feel equally secure to the extent that's possible," the secretary stated.

For the time being, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which oversees U.S. missile defense programs, is continuing work on the Clinton NMD. In February, a Pentagon spokesman noted that Rumsfeld had directed BMDO to "press on" with system testing and research, although no initial site preparation or construction activity in Alaska has been authorized. If the Bush administration opts to continue the Clinton system, it would be expected to approve construction by the end of 2001 if it hoped to start building in 2002.