"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Missile Defense Post-ABM Treaty: No System, No Arms Race

Wade Boese

Last June 13, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, eliminating the treaty’s limits on the U.S. ability to develop and deploy nationwide defenses against long-range ballistic missiles and dampening three decades of contentious debate over whether the United States should pursue such defenses.

In the days and months leading up to the withdrawal, two sharply contrasting forecasts of the potential consequences had clashed. Missile defense proponents, who vilified the ABM Treaty as jeopardizing U.S. security by shackling efforts to protect the country against growing ballistic missile threats, suggested that rapid progress toward the deployment of effective defenses could be achieved once the treaty was abolished. Critics and skeptics of missile defense argued otherwise, warning that the treaty’s demise might make the United States less safe by provoking a new arms race. They asserted Russia might halt or reverse cuts to its nuclear forces and China could respond by expanding its arsenal, which would likely spur India and then Pakistan to follow suit. Those dubious of missile defense also added that the largest impediment to making missile defense work was not the ABM Treaty but the limits of technology.

To date, neither side’s prediction has proven prescient. The United States has not made great strides toward having an operationally reliable nationwide missile defense. The limited missile defense deployment plan for 2004 and 2005 that President George W. Bush announced last December is essentially the same as that proposed by the Clinton administration. Two of the three systems to be fielded under the Bush plan would have been permitted under the ABM Treaty, which barred Washington and Moscow from deploying nationwide defenses against long-range or strategic ballistic missiles but allowed limited defenses against short- and medium-range missiles. The third system to be deployed was originally designated as part of a new test site and possibly could have been legal under the treaty. On the other hand, negative repercussions from the treaty withdrawal appear minimal. Russia criticized the move as a mistake, but no country is known to have launched or expanded a weapons buildup in response to the U.S. withdrawal.

It is still too soon to draw definitive conclusions about whether the United States will derive any significant advantage from abrogating the ABM Treaty or reap more benefits than costs. Missile defense programs initiated in the withdrawal’s wake could take years to show results. Likewise, another country’s arms buildup or hostile attitude in response to the treaty’s end might take some time to become apparent. Nevertheless, preliminary assessments can be made about both sides’ claims.

Assessing the Case for Withdrawal

Since Bush’s December 13, 2001, announcement of his intention to withdraw the United States from the ABM Treaty, as well as the subsequent withdrawal, Bush administration officials have identified three main benefits of exiting the treaty. First and foremost, the United States secured the freedom to deploy any and all strategic missile defense systems that it wants, anywhere it wants. Under the treaty, the United States could deploy no more than 100 ground-based interceptors in North Dakota to protect against long-range ballistic missiles. Second, the Pentagon gained a freer hand to explore and test technologies and basing modes, such as sea- or space-based systems, that were proscribed against long-range ballistic missiles. Third, the Pentagon received greater license to pursue foreign cooperation on missile defense. Though the rhetoric has soared with the treaty’s end—J. D. Crouch, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, described the United States as being “liberated” in a March 2003 address—measurable results have been modest.

Deploying a Test Bed

The most visible move by the Bush administration since the ABM Treaty withdrawal has been Bush’s December 17, 2002, missile defense deployment announcement. Under the plan, the Pentagon will seek to deploy a total of 10 ground-based strategic missile interceptors in 2004. Six of the interceptors are to be located at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Pentagon also aims to field another 10 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely in 2005, up to 20 sea-based interceptors on three ships, and an undisclosed number of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors.

With the exception of the second wave of ground-based interceptors in 2005, the administration’s deployment plan might have been permissible under the ABM Treaty. Both the PAC-3 and the sea-based missile interceptors are designed to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which is a mission known as theater missile defense (TMD). The ABM Treaty did not prohibit TMD systems. And prior to the treaty withdrawal, the Pentagon had unveiled a plan to station six ground-based strategic missile interceptors at Fort Greely as elements of a new test site. The ABM Treaty permitted the addition of new test sites, although there was uncertainty within the State Department over whether the United States simply needed to notify Russia of a new test site or gain Moscow’s approval to establish it. Pentagon statements that the test site could possibly be used in an emergency situation, blurring its status as an operational or test site, complicated the matter. Ultimately, what had been conceptualized and first described as a test site before the decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty then became a deployment following the treaty’s end. Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), has been frank about Fort Greely’s dual nature. He testified before a Senate subcommittee April 9 that “[i]n other words, instead of building a test bed that might be used operationally, we are fielding an initial defensive capability that we will continue to test.”

Although the ground-based interceptors scheduled for deployment at Fort Greely were a key element of the Clinton administration’s National Missile Defense (NMD) program and have been under development for years, they have not been tested in their final form yet. The interceptor’s booster, which carries the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) that is to collide with a warhead in space, has not been flight-tested or selected. A surrogate booster has been used in all eight intercept tests to date. Originally, the Pentagon was supposed to have a new booster for intercept testing by early 2001. However, the booster’s development has been significantly delayed. Two competing models are each to be flight-tested twice this summer. Depending on their performance, the Pentagon will choose one or keep both for future intercept testing and deployment.

In general, the strategic ground-based system to be deployed beginning in 2004 is unproven. Thomas Christie, who heads the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, reported to Congress in a February report that the proposed defense “has yet to demonstrate significant operational capability.”

The system’s eight intercept tests to date—five of which have proven successful—have not been very challenging or representative of a real-world scenario. Citing range limitations and safety considerations, the Pentagon has essentially been repeating the same test at a lower altitude and slower speeds than what a real intercept is likely to demand. The target in all the tests has been equipped with a C-band transponder, and data from that transponder is used to calculate the intercept plan guiding the interceptor into space toward the target. MDA justifies this practice as necessary due to the lack of a radar in the testing area to track the target in its early stages of flight. Information on the target is also fed into the EKV before the intercept attempt so that it can identify the mock warhead from among the other objects, including decoys, in the target cluster. The decoys used in the testing, balloons that are not vaguely similar to the mock warhead, are also largely considered unrepresentative of the foils a potential enemy might employ.

The Pentagon does not refute these criticisms but argues that such limitations and artificialities are the norm in early weapons testing. Kadish recently described the tests as “very scripted,” and Christie suggested the tests have been “relatively unrealistic.” Both officials say more complicated and stressful testing is soon to come. At the same time, documents submitted with the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2004 budget request reveal that MDA has cut several intercept tests previously planned prior to 2009. Between eight to 10 intercept tests are now planned over the next six years. One Senate Democratic staffer remarked in a May 14 interview that MDA’s testing plans have gone from “impossible to execute to anemic.” The staffer was referring to the fact that in recent years the Pentagon suggested it hoped to conduct up to four or even five intercept tests per year. A MDA spokesperson defended the schedule changes May 20, contending that a test schedule is “always notional, as it is for all weapon systems, and is adjusted to meet program needs.”

Despite the system’s acknowledged rudimentary and relatively untested nature, the Bush administration sees no reason not to deploy it. The underlying rationale is that something is better than nothing and can always be improved. In a May 20 document explaining its missile defense approach, the White House described the 2004 deployment as a “starting point” upon which it will add new systems when they become ready. The White House further contended that it is pursuing an “evolutionary approach” to missile defense and that there will be no “final, fixed missile defense architecture.” Democratic lawmakers have criticized this approach, claiming it results in systems being fielded prematurely.

New Tests, Same Uncertainty

The ABM Treaty specifically ruled out the testing, development, and deployment of strategic missile defense systems or components that were air-, sea-, space-, and mobile land-based. Recognizing that neither Washington nor Moscow would be able to verify what went on behind closed doors, the treaty’s negotiators did not bar research. Moreover, the treaty did not prohibit work on TMD systems, such as the PAC-3 that saw action in Iraq. Under the treaty, however, TMD systems and their components could not be tested or used against long-range targets.

In addition to the NMD program designed to counter strategic ballistic missiles, the Bush administration inherited several TMD programs from the Clinton administration. Many missile defense advocates inside and outside government were keen to see if some of these systems could contribute to or perform strategic intercepts. The ABM Treaty withdrawal provided the Pentagon with the opportunity to test such possibilities.

Since the treaty withdrawal, the Pentagon has conducted only two strategic missile defense intercept tests; one succeeded and one failed. In both, the Pentagon involved radars and sensors from various TMD systems to check whether they might be able to play a role in future strategic missile defenses. A ship-based radar, the Aegis system’s AN/SPY-1, was incorporated into both tests. A ground-based radar for the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and a sensor on the Airborne Laser (ABL) aircraft—a modified Boeing 747 that is to be outfitted with a powerful laser—were part of the second test. All three systems participated in “shadow mode,” meaning they were used to observe the target, but the data they acquired was not used to aid the intercept attempt. All the sensors performed well, according to the Pentagon, although there has yet to be a determination whether they worked well enough to support a strategic intercept. The MDA spokesperson said May 20, however, that the ship-based radar could provide targeting data to “help” the ground-based interceptor system “develop a better firing solution.”

Some missile defense supporters have suggested that THAAD, ABL, and the ship-based system, which has been renamed twice by the Bush administration and is now known as Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), might be able to do more than just track long-range targets—that they could also shoot them down. Yet, the Pentagon has not tested this proposition largely because the three systems have not proven themselves against the missiles they were initially designed to defend against. Long-range missile warheads travel at least seven to eight kilometers per second, which is nearly twice as fast as a medium-range missile, making strategic targets more elusive. The current Aegis BMD interceptor missile is deemed too slow by half to intercept a long-range missile warhead, and it has only been tested three times against relatively big targets moving slower than a medium-range ballistic missile warhead. The THAAD system has not been tested since the summer of 1999, when it destroyed two nonstrategic targets after failing in six straight tests, and is not to be flight-tested again until late 2004. The ABL aircraft has not been equipped with its laser, and the program’s future is clouded. Kadish noted at the April hearing, “[W]e are right on the edge of making this very revolutionary technology either prove itself or fail. And we just don’t know the answer to that question yet.” If the program continues, Kadish is predicting the first ABL test against a nonstrategic target no earlier than the end of 2004. None of the three systems is scheduled to be fired against a strategic target within the next few years.

The U.S. treaty withdrawal sent the Pentagon back to the drawing board for radars and sensors in general. In his April testimony, Kadish said, “I know we’re rethinking the combination of sensors…without the treaty now.” But instead of clarifying plans, the treaty withdrawal appears to have jumbled them, at least in the short term. Kadish admitted as much. “And there is a major debate inside the community…based on affordability reasons and a whole host of other technical issues. In my view, that debate is not resolved yet,” Kadish explained.

During the Clinton administration, Pentagon plans called for the construction of an advanced X-band radar on Alaska’s Shemya Island, a desolate island at the western tip of the Aleutians, and the deployment of two satellite constellations (Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)-low and SBIRS-high) to track and discriminate among incoming ballistic missile warheads. Now, the Pentagon is planning to put the X-band radar on a sea-based platform. It has also significantly scaled back SBIRS-low and renamed it the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, while SBIRS-high has experienced a series of delays and cost overruns, pushing back its potential availability.

The near-term implication is that the ground-based interceptors to be deployed in 2004 and 2005 will not be supported by sensors that were previously assessed as being important elements for any future strategic missile defense. An upgraded early-warning radar and older model sensor satellites are intended to support the interceptors, but they are less capable than the envisioned systems. The X-band radar and new satellites were not to be available until 2005 or later under the Clinton administration as well, but the nascent and troubled state of the programs has raised greater concern about when they might really be ready. One of the staunchest Senate supporters of missile defense, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), even expressed doubts about the direction of sensor programs, critically questioning Kadish in April about MDA’s plans to put the X-band radar on a sea-based platform.

In addition to re-evaluating what sensors might do the best job of supporting a strategic missile intercept, the Pentagon is also considering new interceptor systems as well. MDA is exploring conceptual designs for miniature kill vehicles to enable multiple ones to be put on a single interceptor so it can engage several targets or decoys. A kill vehicle is the part of the interceptor that separates from the booster lifting it into space and then homes in on a target for a destructive collision. MDA also intends to soon begin evaluating designs for satellites armed with interceptors to shoot down ballistic missiles within the first few minutes after their launch. MDA intends to deploy up to three or five such satellites for testing purposes as early as 2008. Both of these concepts would have eventually run afoul of the ABM Treaty. At the same time, they are both in the preliminary stages and could have been investigated under the treaty for some time, perhaps years, before running up against the accord’s prohibition against testing and development.

A Little Help From Our Friends

The White House also advocated withdrawing from the ABM Treaty so international cooperation on missile defenses could be expanded. Other countries might be invited to participate in joint research, or they could also potentially permit U.S. missile defense assets to be deployed on their territories. Although the United States has sent delegations far and wide to discuss potential missile defense cooperation, the Pentagon has few results to show for its efforts.

The most tangible accomplishment has been the British government’s February decision to permit the United States to upgrade the Fylingdales early-warning radar on British territory. A similar request to the Danish government to do the same to a radar located at Thule, Greenland, has not been answered. The Pentagon’s aim is to improve the two radars’ tracking ability against missiles fired from the Middle East and enable them to guide interceptors to potential targets. Currently, the radars are limited to spotting missile launches and tracking missiles during their first few minutes of flight.

State Department and Pentagon officials said they could not name any other new programs initiated with foreign governments, but they said discussions were underway. While claiming that there has been “a good deal of progress” on international cooperation, one Pentagon official interviewed May 13 remarked, “[B]ut in the terms of getting into the details of specific countries, specific programs, specific discussions, the status of programs and discussions, we’re not ready to do that.” A State Department official interviewed May 19 reported that no “blueprint-type data” has been shared with foreign governments—an action Kadish frequently cites as one of the key benefits of the treaty withdrawal. The official added that some European countries have volunteered their territory for the deployment of missile defense assets.

Although only London has publicly signed up for new cooperation, Washington’s treaty withdrawal has quieted most overseas criticism of its missile defense plans. The State Department official interviewed May 19 characterized the change in tone as “remarkable,” noting that vehement opposition no longer exists and countries are more interested in exploring and discussing operational aspects of missile defenses, such as command and control issues. Reflecting this attitude shift, NATO agreed last November to undertake a study of missile defenses to protect allied territories and population against all ranges of ballistic missiles. Two NATO members, France and Germany, were leading missile defense opponents prior to the U.S. treaty withdrawal.

In its May 20 missile defense paper, the Bush administration said that, in order to pursue foreign missile defense cooperation, it would review existing U.S. export regulations that could hinder joint work or the transfer of missile defense technologies abroad. The White House declared it would “seek to eliminate impediments to such cooperation.” It also stated that the United States would implement the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)—an informal regime of 33 countries that aims to restrict the transfer of ballistic missiles capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload 300 kilometers or more—in a manner so that it would not interfere with international missile defense cooperation. A State Department official interviewed May 22 said how that would be done has not been decided yet. Last summer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen warned in congressional testimony that the United States should be cognizant of the potential precedent it could set if it chose to allow transfers of missile systems that might fall under MTCR controls. Washington might undercut its ability to persuade other countries to abide by their MTCR commitments if the United States is also pursuing deals at odds with the regime, he suggested.

The ABM Treaty did not rule out all U.S. cooperation on missile defenses with foreign governments. Israel, Japan, Italy, and Germany had programs for jointly researching or developing TMD systems underway with the United States when Bush took office. Washington and Moscow also agreed to work together in 1992 on designing two satellites for use in spotting ballistic missile launches. All of these programs are still ongoing, although some, particularly the Russian project, have been troubled.


U.S. Missile Defense: Protection
Against a North Korean Threat?

As the Bush administration seeks to maintain political support for its missile defense plans, it is using the potential threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program as a key element in its sales pitch. President George W. Bush argued during an April 24 interview that a U.S. missile defense “will make it less likely that a nuclear country could blackmail us or Japan or any one of our friends.”

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer added during an April 25 briefing that North Korea’s recent “announcement” that it possesses nuclear weapons “is an important reminder of why missile defense is an important part of our strategy to defend our country.”

A May 20 White House fact sheet on U.S. missile defense policy states that the United States is pursuing such a defense to augment its deterrence capability against states “aggressively pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles as a means of coercing the United States and our allies”—a possible reference to North Korea.

Although North Korea’s long-range missile programs have been a source of concern, both administration officials and other experts have expressed concern that a nuclear-armed North Korea could present security threats that a U.S. missile defense system could not counter, such as selling fissile material to other governments or inspiring other regional powers to acquire nuclear weapons.

Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet sounded a new alarm about North Korea’s missile program when he testified during a February congressional hearing that Pyongyang currently possesses a missile capable of reaching the United States.

A CIA spokesperson interviewed in February cited a December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate as the agency’s most recent public assessment of North Korea’s missile program. The estimate says North Korea’s Taepo Dong-2 missile could hit parts of the continental United States in a two-stage configuration and all of North America in a three-stage configuration. North Korea has not tested these missiles, the spokesman said.

The longest-range missile North Korea has flight-tested is the Taepo Dong-1, which it launched into the Sea of Japan in 1998. As configured, that missile cannot reach the United States. Pyongyang announced in September that it would extend indefinitely a 1999 moratorium on long-range missile testing.

What About Costs?

Although the scorecard appears relatively bare for those who advocated dumping the ABM Treaty, no serious negative repercussions have accumulated either.

Russia and China condemned the U.S. withdrawal and still grumble occasionally about U.S. missile defense plans, but neither has announced new armament plans. There has not been an unraveling of arms control treaties as Russia threatened could happen. In fact, Moscow negotiated a new nuclear arms reduction agreement, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), with Washington after Bush announced his intention to scrap the ABM Treaty. Both Moscow and Beijing seem to have concluded that the technical complexity of missile defenses will hamper the United States from fielding anything in the short term that could threaten their security and therefore have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. To be sure, both countries are strongly pushing for negotiation of a treaty essentially devoted to preventing the deployment of space-based missile defenses. Any U.S. move to test or deploy such systems would generate significant anxiety and ill will, and not just from Russia and China.

Harder to assess is whether the treaty withdrawal impacted other countries’ willingness to cooperate with the United States on other international security issues, such as confronting and disarming Iraq. Many countries have expressed dismay with what they perceive as the Bush administration’s unilateralist style, but the ABM Treaty withdrawal is just one of a series of actions that have elicited foreign consternation. One European diplomat based in Washington and interviewed May 16 speculated that Washington’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol regarding global warming ranked as the U.S. act that most upset other countries. The diplomat went on to say that, politically, the withdrawal would seem to have been largely positive so far, taking into account the shift in tone surrounding missile defense globally.

What Has Not Happened

Nearly a year after the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, it is as easy to identify what has not happened as what has. The United States appears no closer to deploying a working defense against strategic ballistic missiles than it was before withdrawing from the treaty. The sole system on the horizon is the same one inherited from the Clinton administration, and it still remains unproven. The possible deployment of sensors and radars for tracking long-range ballistic missiles has slipped further. Despite concerted attempts to sell other countries on the merits of missile defenses, few have bought in, although that could change. But no countries have also taken up arms against the United States for its move, and none have copied the U.S. action. North Korea’s announced withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty earlier this year cannot be attributed to the U.S. ABM Treaty withdrawal, and Russia’s June 2002 declaration that it would no longer be bound by the START II nuclear arms reduction accord, which had not entered into force and was effectively superseded by SORT, was more symbolic than substantive.

While not agreeing on much, some missile defense proponents and critics have contended that the U.S. ABM Treaty withdrawal, coupled with Bush’s December 2002 deployment announcement, has ended the long debate over missile defenses. Until missile defenses are proven to work, however, the expenditure of several billions of dollars per year on their research and development will surely stimulate debate. Furthermore, if the United States ultimately proves successful in fielding effective defenses, the response from other countries could make the original motivation leading to the negotiation of the ABM Treaty—the desire to avoid an offensive-defensive arms race—relevant again.

Whether the United States can deploy effective defenses remains unknown. Notwithstanding the Patriot systems’ purported success in the latest Iraq conflict, technical challenges and obstacles did not disappear with the ABM Treaty. The objective of hitting a relatively slow-moving short-range ballistic missile warhead differs significantly from destroying a long-range ballistic missile warhead potentially accompanied by sophisticated countermeasures speeding through space. Philip Coyle, who reviewed all Pentagon weapons testing for six years during the Clinton administration, describes missile defense as the hardest thing the Pentagon has ever tried to do. One person who probably understands this better than anybody else is Kadish, who noted at a March 2003 missile defense conference that, with the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the Bush administration “has taken our excuses away.”