Withdrawal Is Premature

Charles Peña and Ivan Eland

The development of a limited national missile defense to protect the U.S. homeland may eventually require withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, but now is not the time to have made that decision.

First, the testing program for the most mature strategic missile defense technology—the limited, land-based, midcourse system—remains in its infancy. National missile defense is the most complex weapon system ever developed, and the technology is unproven. Therefore, as with any other high-tech weapon system, a thorough test program is needed. Because the ABM Treaty permits research of fixed, land-based ABM technology, development of this system—including increasingly more complex and operationally realistic tests, such as those using countermeasures and decoys—could continue within the constraints of the treaty.

Eighteen tests of the land-based strategic midcourse system are scheduled and, although the results of testing to date have been promising (three of the five tests conducted so far have been considered successful), it is still too early to determine the operational viability of the system. The technological difficulties have been recently highlighted by a test failure of the system’s rocket booster and the repeated delays in the space-based infrared system, which is designed to provide tracking and guidance for the system. In other words, it is far too early to make a deployment decision—and that is the only point at which the United States would need either to withdraw from the treaty or to modify it.

Punctuating the immaturity of U.S. missile defense technology and the need for more testing before a deployment decision can be made, the Pentagon cancelled a Navy program for ship-based, short-range ballistic missile defense the day after the U.S. announcement to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The program, Navy Area Wide, was supposedly one of the most advanced of the theater ballistic missile systems, whose slower-moving targets present far less of a technical challenge than the ICBM warheads that the land-based strategic system will be intended to counter.

Apparently, Navy Area Wide had problems with integrating targeting computers with the Aegis radar system, and the land-based system could experience similar problems with integrating its various components. Ironically, one of the reasons the Bush administration decided to withdraw from the ABM Treaty was to pursue sea-based missile defense against long-range ballistic missiles. But canceling the Navy Area Wide program does not bode well for the more difficult prospect of sea-based missile defense against long-range missiles.

In light of this cancellation, the claim made by Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy, that at the president’s direction, the Navy’s Aegis-equipped ships could be “immediately upgraded as a matter of the utmost priority… [and] given limited capability to intercept ballistic missiles roughly six months after the ABM Treaty expires” needs to be viewed with healthy skepticism. Indeed, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, the head of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), said that strategic, sea-based defenses could not be ready before the end of the decade. Although advocates would wish otherwise, the truth is that the technology and system integration for effective missile defense cannot be rushed as a simple matter of political will and presidential direction.

Second, President George W. Bush claims that the ABM Treaty “hinders our government’s ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks.” But those threats are not existing ones that warrant an immediate withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Ballistic missiles are the least likely means by which terrorists would deliver a weapon against the United States because terrorists would have greater difficulty developing, acquiring, or using an ICBM than they would delivering a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon by other means.

Rogue states are also unlikely to use missiles because they provide a known point of origin, which would likely result in immediate U.S. retaliation with the most powerful nuclear arsenal on the planet. Furthermore, it is not inevitable that a rogue-state ballistic missile threat will emerge. For example, in 1998 North Korea set off alarm bells when it tested over Japan a missile deemed to have intercontinental range, but it has since agreed not to test-fire long-range ballistic missiles before 2003. If a North Korean missile threat were to emerge, it would not do so for at least five years, allowing plenty of time to test the fixed, land-based system before making a deployment decision that would necessitate withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

Finally, although President Bush stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that the “decision to withdraw from the treaty will not in any way undermine our new relationship or Russian security,” withdrawing from the treaty (much like NATO expansion) could unnecessarily antagonize the Russians and result in unintended consequences as Russia responds with its own national security interests in mind. Some hardliners in Russia reacted to the ABM Treaty decision by immediately calling for retaining more land-based ICBMs than had been planned and fitting them with multiple warheads in contravention of START II. Some in Russia have talked of scrapping all past arms control agreements. The withdrawal could also impede the two nations’ continued cooperation on the war on terrorism and on safeguarding Russia’s dangerous stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Some in Russia have characterized the U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty as a “slap in the face” and “calculated to offend Russia” after Putin has stood by the United States in its war on terrorism.1

In addition, despite a somewhat muted response to the announcement, China opposed U.S. withdrawal from the treaty. Although the Chinese will modernize their modest and antiquated nuclear force regardless of whether the United States develops and deploys a missile defense system, the decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty will most likely accelerate their efforts. At a minimum, the United States should expect that China will invest in countermeasures for its intercontinental ballistic missiles as one means of offsetting a potential U.S. missile defense system. The Chinese could also sell these countermeasures (or the technology to develop them) to rogue states such as North Korea, whose missiles have been influenced by Chinese designs. Also of great concern is whether Chinese nuclear modernization will include expansion, resulting in hundreds—rather than tens—of long-range nuclear missiles.

Because both the threat and a thoroughly tested, limited, land-based missile defense system are still well in the future, making a withdrawal decision now simply incurs all of the negative international consequences of withdrawing from the treaty in the short term while yielding no security benefit for many years, if ever.

Indeed, the only argument for withdrawing from the ABM Treaty is to develop strategic missile defenses on sea-, air-, space-, and mobile land-based platforms, which are prohibited by the treaty. Although the Bush administration claims that such platforms would provide a layered defense that would better protect the United States, the truth is that a land-based system is perfectly adequate for handling the limited potential threat from rogue states. In reality, the administration’s primary purpose for a layered defense seems to be construction of a global missile defense designed to protect friends and allies around the world. As the BMDO stated, the U.S. objective is to “develop the capability to defend the forces and territories of the United States, its allies, and friends against all classes of ballistic missile threats.” Furthermore, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has directed that the program focus “on missile defense as a single integrated BMD [ballistic missile defense] system, no longer differentiating between theater and national missile defense.”

It would seem, then, that national missile defense has quietly and unassumingly become global international missile defense, designed to protect not just the United States (although missile defense is portrayed to the American public as defending the United States) but also its allies and friends around the world. Indeed, the Bush administration plan seems no different than the “from anywhere to anywhere” threat rationale used for the GPALS (Global Protection Against Limited Strikes) system proposed by the previous Bush administration. This should come as no surprise since many of the top thinkers and decision-makers in the current Bush administration are holdovers from the elder Bush’s tenure.

But why should the United States shoulder the burden of a global missile defense system (likely to cost well in excess of $100 billion, if not several hundred billion dollars) when many of the friends and allies that such a system would protect are wealthy enough to pay for their own missile defense, already spend too little on their own defense, and already benefit from U.S. security guarantees?

Furthermore, such a system mimics the overextended U.S. defense perimeter, which is built on the misperception that vital U.S. national security interests require defending every region of the globe and responding to every crisis in those many regions. The belief is that a global missile defense system would create a shield that would give the United States freedom of action to operate with relative impunity throughout the world. But if policymakers feel more secure, they may also feel more emboldened to engage in reckless overseas military adventures against nations armed with weapons of mass destruction and the long-range missiles needed to deliver them against the United States. And because no missile defense system can guarantee that all incoming warheads will be destroyed, such reasoning might lead to a false sense of security that could actually undermine U.S. national security.

If the United States is going to abandon the ABM Treaty and build a new strategic framework with Russia, it should do so to provide real national security for the U.S. homeland rather than to be the world’s policeman. Advocates of missile defense are quick to paint a “doom and gloom” picture that the United States and its citizens are currently defenseless against attacks from ballistic missiles. Why then should the United States pursue a global system that would defend the world, take much longer to put in place, and be significantly more expensive than a system designed to defend the United States? Such reasoning smacks of “bait and switch” tactics.

The single most important function of the U.S. government is to protect the American people. To the extent that a truly national missile defense system is technically and operationally feasible, fiscally affordable, and strategically wise, the United States should strive to develop and deploy such a system. But any defense expenditure, including spending on missile defense, must be commensurate to the threat. The potential rogue state threat is limited. Terrorists armed with ballistic missiles are an even more limited and more remote threat. It is disingenuous to say “America is defenseless” as a rationale to gain public support for missile defense but then to pursue an exorbitantly expensive global system to defend U.S. friends and allies overseas.

In sum, the United States can do all the research it needs to develop a limited, land-based national missile defense system to protect the United States homeland within the constraints of the ABM Treaty. It is premature to withdraw from the treaty until that technology is proven and the system is ready for deployment. Even a limited land-based system, the system closest to fruition, will probably not be fielded until the turn of the decade. Sea- and air-based technology will take longer, and pie-in-the-sky space-based defensive weapons are way in the future. Finally, such a grandiose missile defense would probably cost well over $100 billion, compared with the approximately $60 billion required for a limited land-based system.


1. Steven Mufson and Sharon LaFraniere, “ABM Withdrawal a Turning Point in Arms Control,” The Washington Post, December 13, 2001; Michael Wines, “Facing Pact’s End, Putin Decides to Grimace and Bear It,” The New York Times, December 14, 2001.

Charles Peña is a senior defense policy analyst and Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.