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DOD Mulls Missile Defense Test Site; Plan Could Violate ABM Treaty
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Wade Boese

The Pentagon is planning to add a missile defense test site in Alaska, a move that could violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

A spokesperson for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) indicated that, as part of the Bush administration’s ballistic missile defense testing program, a “test bed…will be set up” by adding an Alaska test range for “all [missile defense] systems…including ground-based interceptors.” The test bed would encompass, roughly, the triangular area bounded by the new test site in Alaska, the existing U.S. test site in the Marshall Islands, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where test target missiles are launched. It would allow the testing of a greater number of missile trajectories under more realistic conditions and could be ready by a “2004-2007 timeframe,” according to the spokesperson.

At a June 28 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) noted that BMDO Director Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish had briefed senators earlier in June on the option of having up to 10 “test” missiles in Alaska that could be “available for operational deployment.” According to the BMDO spokesperson, placing ground-based interceptors in Alaska would be aimed at improving testing, but the missiles “could be used in an emergency” if the technology had progressed enough.

Under the ABM Treaty, which proscribes Washington and Moscow from building nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles, ABM systems and components under development and testing are to be “located within current or additionally agreed test ranges.” In a common understanding to the treaty, the United States declared two test sites—White Sands, New Mexico, and Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands—and stated that “ABM components will not be located at any other test ranges without prior agreement between our Governments.”

However, in 1978, Washington and Moscow agreed—in a deal made public in 1993—that a new test range would be considered “additionally agreed” if it was “consistent” with the treaty’s prohibitions on a nationwide defense or a “base for such a defense.” A party building a new test range would simply have to notify the other party of its plans no later than 30 days after starting “construction or assembly” of ABM launchers or radar at a new range.

Whether Pentagon plans for adding the Alaska test site for a national defense would be permitted by the 1978 agreement is unclear. If any interceptors at the new range could be “available for operational deployment,” as Kadish reportedly told senators, then the new site would presumably violate the treaty, which limits operational U.S. strategic missile interceptors to a single North Dakota site.

In addition, if the Alaska test range is integrated with other test sites, it could, at some point, be viewed as a “base” for a nationwide defense and, hence, a treaty violation.

When asked repeatedly at the June 28 Armed Services Committee hearing whether any of the Pentagon’s new budget request would be used for activities that would violate the ABM Treaty, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded, “We don’t know for sure,” claiming that it would depend, in part, on how fast technologies evolved. Later, the secretary added, “Not to my knowledge.”

Posted: July 1, 2001