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June 2, 2022
Bush Team Reaffirms Missile Defense Plans; Dems Leery
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Wade Boese

In June, senior Bush officials reiterated the administration’s intention to press forward with ballistic missile defenses as quickly as possible, but leading Senate Democrats warned against precipitously abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Adding an additional note of caution, the top Pentagon official overseeing missile defense programs warned Congress about the risks of rushed testing.

Preceding President George W. Bush to Europe, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told his counterparts at a June 7 NATO defense ministers’ meeting that the Bush administration would follow through with its commitment to deploy ballistic missile defenses to protect the entire United States, U.S. forces deployed abroad, and U.S. allies and friends. But Rumsfeld did not detail any specific plans, saying the exact types of defenses would be determined by testing and would evolve over time.
In his prepared remarks, the secretary explained that the U.S. objective would be to deploy layered defenses targeted at intercepting “handfuls of missiles, not hundreds” during their various stages of flight—boost, midcourse, and terminal. Rumsfeld contended that even “test assets to provide rudimentary defenses” would likely be deployed.

Rumsfeld told the allied defense ministers that it was “inescapable” that U.S. plans would require “moving beyond” the 1972 ABM Treaty, which proscribes Washington and Moscow from building nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles or the base for such defenses. The treaty also bars developing, testing, and deploying sea-, air-, space-, and mobile land-based ABM systems or components.

Bush and his senior officials say it is the treaty’s testing prohibitions that pose the most immediate conflict with their missile defense plans, arguing that the treaty blocks a full exploration of all possible defenses. Rumsfeld maintains that the United States must move past the treaty to allow the Pentagon to conduct necessary tests, though he has not specified what planned testing would violate the treaty.

Administration officials admit they are uncertain as to when their missile defense plans would run afoul of the ABM Treaty, but all say it is inevitable. En route to the NATO meeting, Rumsfeld ventured that the point of violation would vary depending on the pace of testing programs and which lawyer one consulted. Secretary of State Colin Powell has simply said that the exact timing is unknown. When that point is reached, however, Washington “will get out of the constraints of the treaty,” Powell declared during a June 17 interview on Fox. He added that Bush has said the United States will not be stopped by an almost 30-year-old treaty.

Speaking a day after Rumsfeld made his case to NATO, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) described himself as “mystified” that the administration wants to commit billions of dollars to an as-yet-unproven concept. He cautioned that, if Republicans “rush” missile defense, it could be an “embarrassment to them, to the country.”

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), who now chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and will be in charge of marking up the Pentagon budget, suggested in May that the committee should not support funding for activities that would violate the ABM Treaty.

Levin and other Democrats grilled Powell and Rumsfeld on missile defense in separate June hearings. On June 20, Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned the hurry to abandon the ABM Treaty, saying he was aware of no missile defense tests currently scheduled before 2003 that “even gets us close to a violation of ABM.” Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), at an Armed Services Committee hearing with Rumsfeld the next day, expanded on the same theme, saying, “All of the wringing of hands of the abrogation of the treaty seems to me a little premature before something has been developed.”

Democrats also criticized the administration’s contention that it might deploy a system before it had been fully tested. Both Rumsfeld and Powell said that fielding a system before it has been completely tested is not the same thing as fielding a nonfunctional system. “We of course would not deploy anything…if we didn’t think it would work,” Powell declared. However, he added, that “does not necessarily mean that you have to wait until every last test has been concluded.”

Lieutenant General Kadish Testifies

Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who oversees U.S. missile defense programs, testified June 14 before a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee that “if we rush development imprudently, I will guarantee that we will get less-than-satisfactory results.” Although he did not rule out “rapid, aggressive development” if done prudently, he said that from his perspective “more testing is always better.”

When questioned about how the ABM Treaty impacts testing, Kadish answered that all testing has complied with the treaty. Referring to the proposed Clinton national missile defense (NMD) system, which employs a ground-based missile interceptor with an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) to destroy an incoming target, Kadish said that the treaty “hasn’t prevented us from doing what we need to do…per se.”

The treaty would bar ship-based interceptors or the Airborne Laser (ABL) from being tested against targets simulating strategic ballistic missiles. Currently, the ABL and U.S. sea-based missile defense programs are geared toward intercepting short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, but the administration is believed to be very keen on shifting those programs so they can deal with long-range missiles. (The ABL was the only missile defense project to get extra funding—$153 million—under the Bush administration’s supplemental fiscal year 2001 budget request.)

Kadish, however, said he did not believe that it was feasible in the near term to upgrade existing technology so that a ship-based interceptor could intercept missiles in their boost phase, as some missile defense advocates suggest. “We would have to undertake a major development program to make that happen,” he asserted.

The program furthest along in development and closest to deployment, according to Kadish, is the Clinton NMD system. He then acknowledged, “We have an awful lot of work to do, however.”