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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Pentagon Puts Off Missile Defense Testing, Citing ABM Treaty
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Wade Boese

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced October 25 that the Pentagon had decided against carrying out October and November missile defense testing activities that he said could be viewed as violating the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

According to Rumsfeld, the Pentagon “decided not to go forward” with plans to use Aegis ship-based radars to track the target and interceptor in an October 24 test of the midcourse strategic missile defense system or to track a rocket being used to launch a satellite November 14. The secretary said a plan to use a radar at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to track the target missile in the October 24 intercept test had also been dropped.

The ABM Treaty bans development, testing, and deployment of sea-based components and systems for strategic ballistic missile defenses. The same prohibitions apply to air-, space-, and mobile land-based systems as well. The accord also limits radars that can be used in testing strategic defenses to those that have been solely designated for such a role, which the California-based radar is not.

The intercept test and the satellite launch will still take place; they will simply be conducted without inclusion of the ship-based and California-based radars, which were added to the test program sometime after the main tests had been scheduled. It is uncertain when Pentagon planners requested using the radars to track targets—Pentagon and White House spokespersons either did not respond to inquiries or said that they did not know.

It is also unclear why Rumsfeld announced the delay of the October 24 test the day after it was supposed to have taken place—particularly since the Pentagon had already announced a few weeks earlier that the October 24 intercept would not take place until late November or early December. That delay had been caused by pre-test inspections and preparations, not anything treaty-related, according to a spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which oversees U.S. missile defense programs.

When asked by a reporter October 29 whether his announcement had been “somewhat incomplete” for failing to mention that the test had already been delayed for technical reasons, Rumsfeld replied, “Well, if it was, I’m sorry.” The secretary, however, went on to say that “the important thing is that we are not using one radar on [the test]” because of treaty concerns.

However, it is unclear what purpose in the test the Aegis radar, which is not part of the strategic midcourse missile defense system, would have served. A Pentagon report released last March stated the Aegis radar is “not capable of supporting [strategic]-class engagements due to its limited detection and tracking range.” The BMDO spokesman explained that Pentagon testers simply wanted to “see what the radar can do.”

The timing of Rumsfeld’s announcement, sandwiched between the October 21 meeting of President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin and the two leaders’ upcoming mid-November summit, appeared designed to serve two purposes.

The test cancellations seemed to be a goodwill gesture toward Russia that Washington would hold off on any potential treaty-busting tests while discussing with Moscow what to do about the ABM Treaty. At the same time, the move suggested time was running short to reach an agreement on the treaty’s future because the accord is already hobbling the Pentagon’s missile defense testing that it claims is necessary.

That the Bush administration’s proposed testing program would raise treaty compliance issues was not unexpected. Missile defense planners were told to ignore ABM compliance concerns, according to two senior defense officials in a July 11 background briefing, and foreign governments were told by the United States in July that there is “no intent to design tests to conform to, or stay within the confines of the [ABM] Treaty.”

In fact, in July 17 Senate testimony, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz volunteered that adding a ship-based radar to a strategic missile defense test could conflict with the treaty, though he assured attending senators that the United States would not violate the treaty.

In his October 25 briefing, after noting that the Pentagon had been telling Congress and Russia “for some time now” that the U.S. missile defense program would “bump up against” the treaty, Rumsfeld declared, “That has now happened.” He asserted that this “reality” should serve as an “impetus” for the two presidents’ three-day discussion, which begins November 13 and is expected to focus on missile defenses, the ABM Treaty, and strategic nuclear cuts.

Since early this summer, Bush and other top administration officials have been trying to persuade the Kremlin to abandon the ABM Treaty so the United States can freely test and build national or strategic missile defenses. If unsuccessful, Bush has said the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the accord, which requires a six-month notice. For his part, Putin has rejected scrapping the treaty but has hinted that Russia would be open to amending it.

Two other possible missile defense activities identified by Wolfowitz in his testimony could also soon run afoul of the ABM Treaty. The first involves a missile intercept test next February that would involve both ABM and air defense radars operating concurrently, and the second is the start of construction next spring of a new Alaska-based missile defense test site, including five new missile interceptor silos. These activities have not been postponed or cancelled, and Rumsfeld did not say whether any final determination has been made about whether they would violate the treaty or not.