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Missile Wars
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National Missile Defense and the ABM Treaty:
No Need to Wreck the Accord by Philip E. Coyle and John B. Rhinelander

This article from the Fall 2001 issue of World Policy Journal challenges the Bush administration's rationale for withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. "The bottom line is that development of national missile defense could go on for many years without violating the ABM Treaty," the authors write.

Philip E. Coyle is senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., and former director of operational test and evaluation at the Department of Defense. He also served as a consultant to FRONTLINE's "Missile Wars." John B. Rhinelander is senior counsel at Shaw Pittman in Washington, D.C., and former legal adviser to the SALT I delegation that negotiated the ABM Treaty.

The administration of President George W. Bush is moving full speed ahead with a variety of national missile defense (NMD) approaches, and has said that in months -- not years -- missile defense testing will wreck the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. While this position may reflect a profound desire on the part of the administration to be rid of the treaty, it does not change the fact that NMD technology lags fervent policy wishes. While testing and deployment options can be designed to violate the ABM accord, doing so is not necessary to advance the development of missile defense-related technologies. For the moment, development of missile defense hardware and software does not require -- and may actually be harmed by -- the kind of emergency crash program now being touted by the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

National missile defense is in its infant stages, and it will take a decade or more for the technology to mature. The only thing pushing such deployment plans, which are aimed at the erection of interceptors before the end of Bush's term in 2004, is U.S. domestic politics.

The Bush team is arguing that the ABM Treaty is no longer needed to manage the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship, as Russia is no longer an enemy. Instead, Bush administration officials argue, both Russia and the United States must be prepared to counter the potential use of ballistic missiles with nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads by rogue countries or terrorist regimes.

Any unilateral move to undermine or abrogate the ABM Treaty at this time is not wise. Signed in 1972 by the Cold War's two superpower antagonists, the treaty -- which stopped the arms race in defensive systems -- has served as a foundation document for the international rules of the road that over the past three decades have worked to make nuclear war less likely. The ABM Treaty was a predicate for the limitations placed on and then the reductions in strategic offensive weapons through SALT I (1972), SALT II (1979), START I (1991), START II (1993), and the outline for START III (1997). (1)

The bottom line is that development of national missile defense could go on for many years without violating the ABM Treaty.

In brief, the ABM Treaty as amended in 1974: (1) limits the United States and Russia to one deployment site each, the Russian one being around Moscow and the U.S. site in North Dakota; (2) permits unlimited flight testing of fixed land-based anti-ballistic missile systems and components at identified ABM test ranges, but prohibits the advanced development and flight testing of all mobile-type ABMs (sea-based, air-based, space-based, and mobile land-based); (3) prohibits giving ABM "capability" to non-ABM systems and "testing them in an ABM mode"; and (4) provides for verification by national technical means, establishes the Standing Consultative Commission to promote implementation, and provides for both amendments and for withdrawal on six months notice.

Together with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Arms, signed in 1968 under President Johnson and ratified in 1969 under President Nixon, the ABM Treaty is one of the twin pillars of the complex, post-World War II arms control regime that encompasses nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional arms, and their delivery systems.

Whatever the administration plans for missile defense testing and deployment, those plans should be preceded by the U.S.-promised discussions between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek a bilateral understanding as to what kind of relationship will succeed the treaty.

In the meantime, the ABM Treaty continues to provide predictability in the strategic environment. While the treaty itself is bilateral, the global nonproliferation regime designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons hinges, in the first instance, on the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship and the promise by both sides to work at reducing their arsenals.

While the political relationship between the United States and Russia has changed substantially, the nuclear postures of the two countries have not -- each has thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the other on high alert. Russia's arsenal remains a potent threat to the United States. This is especially the case because of the deterioration of Russia's command and control system for its some 6,000 strategic nuclear weapons and its inability to keep tabs on its still larger numbers of tactical weapons and massive stocks of fissile materials.

The Russian arsenal continues to constitute the largest single threat to the United States, and the most profound proliferation risk in the world. Under these circumstances, it is still preferable to continue to abide by the ABM Treaty (amended as necessary) to maintain the predictability required to enable Russian political and military leaders to avoid worst-case assumptions, and to work with the United States in an expanded cooperative threat-reduction program.

If the proliferation of ballistic missiles warrants the development of new missile defenses, there are overwhelming political advantages to doing so in accord with Russia rather than over Moscow's objections. Failure to win Moscow's acquiescence would damage the ability to reduce the lingering threat to the United States from Russian weapons, thus undercutting U.S. security. The simple fact is that Russian leaders still see the ABM Treaty as useful, indeed necessary, in managing future U.S.-Russian nuclear relations.

President Bush has the right, under the U.S. Constitution, to withdraw the United States from the treaty upon six months' notice. If he does so, the pending Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), which would reduce both the U.S. and Russian arsenals to between 3,500 and 3,000 warheads, will not enter into effect because of a condition set by the Russian Duma. Russia also has announced it will withdraw from the earlier START I accord that governs the current size and makeup of the two arsenals. Thus, U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty could lead to a collapse of the larger arms control regime. First the ABM Treaty disappears, then START, then the Non-Proliferation Treaty is weakened, and finally the rest of the legal edifice begins to crumble.

Treaty No Obstacle to Technology

In addition to dismissing the value of the ABM Treaty as a political instrument, many in the Bush administration argue that the treaty is thwarting the development of missile defense technology. This is simply not yet the case. Under any step-by-step system architecture proposed by the administration, there will be years of development and developmental testing required. The treaty should not, in the near- or medium-term, raise any obstacles to this work.

Although specifics of the Bush plan remain unclear (part of the problem in debating the issues raised by missile defense), administration statements and budget documents indicate that the Pentagon is crafting a new approach that would involve integrating systems designed to shoot down incoming enemy missiles at different stages in their flight path. This is known as a "layered system" and would involve missile interceptors aimed at hitting incoming missiles in their initial lift-off or boost phase, during midcourse flight, and in the incoming, terminal phase as they near and reenter the atmosphere over the United States.

The administration also seems to be taking a broad approach to the types of platforms such interceptors would use, developing ground-, air-, sea- and space-based launchers, and air- and space-based lasers.

This wide-ranging approach to development is different from that of the Clinton administration, which concentrated on a fixed, ground-based, midcourse national missile defense system. (The Clinton administration was also developing air- and sea-based, as well as ground-based, theater missile defense (TMD) systems.)

Moreover, the Bush team has blurred the line between NMD -- that is, a system designed to protect the continental United States from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) -- and TMD -- a system designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles that might be used to defend allies or American troops abroad against shorter-range missiles. The administration has proposed a new, layered architecture that would combine theater- and national-level missile defenses into one integrated network. The 2002 budget request includes $8.3 billion for both national and theater missile defense research programs. In fact, the Pentagon no longer differentiates between the two in its discussions, referring to all systems simply as missile defenses.

In reality, national missile defense and theater missile defense are completely separate concepts, requiring different technical approaches and addressing very different threats. There is, for example, a real threat from crude, short-range Scud-type missiles in many parts of the world. This threat is widely recognized in the United States and among regional friends and allies, whereas many question the immediacy of a threat to U.S. territory from long-range missiles. Theater missile defense systems do not hold the potential to alter the strategic balance between the United States and Russia, although they have more resonance for strategic relations between the United States and China, given Beijing's concerns about the possibility of Taiwan obtaining missile defenses.

Further, the ABM Treaty does not constrain theater missile defenses -- unless those defenses are given ABM capabilities or are being tested or deployed in a fashion designed to integrate them with national missile defense. This is exactly what the Bush administration now is proposing, for example, in its plans to use the Aegis cruiser's tactical radar system to track an ICBM-class intercept test.

A 1997 demarcation agreement between Russia and the United States was designed to clarify the ABM Treaty's TMD/NMD distinction and remove some technical barriers in the treaty that might have prevented the Pentagon from testing ongoing theater missile defense programs, such as the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ground-based interceptor system. Unfortunately, the 1997 agreement, which reaffirms a ban on space-based TMD components, has neither been submitted to, nor approved by, the U.S. Senate, despite its passage by the Russian Duma.

Although it remains unratified, the agreement highlights the fact that the ABM Treaty was written with flexibility in mind. The original negotiators recognized that technological changes were to be expected over time. The current treaty limits Russia and the United States to one missile defense site to protect either the national capital or a missile launch field. It prohibits the late stages of development, field testing, and deployment of mobile-type NMD components (radar, launchers, and missiles) such as sea-based interceptors, as well as future technologies to accomplish the same goal, such as air-based lasers.

These constraints, however, could be modified through amendments to accommodate Bush administration plans for vigorous development and test programs to determine the feasibility of various approaches to national missile defense. Of course, amending the treaty would mean negotiations with Russia and the consent of the U.S. Senate. And negotiation -- which takes time -- may be something the Bush team is unwilling to support.

Nevertheless, taking some time to discuss the issue may be unavoidable. There is a lack of agreement and deep skepticism among many in the defense policy and scientific communities, as well as among many centrists in Congress, about the technological feasibility and the likely costs. There is concern among U.S. nonproliferation experts and among U.S. allies that the Pentagon's assessment of the long-range missile threat is exaggerated, since there are no countries outside of Russia and China with the capability to strike U.S. territory. And there are serious questions about the political costs versus the benefits of moving forward with such a complex system. As noted, there are increasing signs that the Bush administration is pursuing a deliberate strategy to create conflict with the ABM Treaty, without a backup plan for measurably advancing U.S. security. It must be stressed that no matter what configuration is ultimately chosen for NMD deployment, there is no testing justification for early withdrawal from the treaty. For the foreseeable future, adequate developmental testing, and even some necessary operational testing, can be performed within the treaty's current restraints.

The treaty permits unlimited development, as well as testing, of fixed, land-based ABM components, and the testing of future fixed, land-based technologies, as long as the tests are carried out at permitted test ranges. The two U.S. sites approved for such testing are White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico, and Kwajalein Missile Range in the Pacific Ocean. Additional test sites could be designated in Alaska, Hawaii, or elsewhere -- once it was determined they were needed.

In fact, up to now there has been no missile defense testing undertaken or planned that violated, or was designed to violate, the treaty. NMD flight intercept tests have used targets launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast toward Kwajalein, from where the interceptors were launched.

The reason is not simply that the Clinton administration refused to conduct treaty-busting tests, rather that NMD technologies, from interceptors to boosters to radar to command-control software, are not really very far along. There is nearly a decade's worth of necessary development and testing that is fully compatible with the ABM Treaty.


Even the midcourse NMD program that has been underway at the Pentagon for nearly a decade remains at a relatively early stage of development. The program had its first successful flight intercept test in October 1999. That test was designed to demonstrate the basic elements of a national missile defense system, including the foundation concept of "hit to kill," that is, using the kinetic energy of the interceptor, rather than an explosive warhead, to knock down an incoming enemy missile.

The October test did validate the hit-to-kill concept itself, but not the overall viability of the NMD system. This is because the test was highly controlled and unrealistic. For example, in order to ensure that the interceptor and incoming missile would collide, a beacon linking the target missile to the Global Positioning Satellite (GPs) network was used to help guide the interceptor in the midcourse.

At the time of the October test, three more flight intercept tests were planned, each one more complicated than the last in order to provide more and more realistic criteria. Under the original plans, all three would have been conducted successfully by now. That has not happened. The two tests following the October 1999 test failed. The next one in the series was delayed for months but was conducted on July 14, 2001, again successfully demonstrating hit-to-kill -- although other aspects of the test were problematic, and an active radar beacon on the target was used (instead of GPS) to help guide the interceptor during an early portion of its flight.

The bottom line is that some twenty or more flight intercept tests, and hundreds of component and subsystem tests, will be needed before the Pentagon can even begin to consider realistic operational testing of a fixed, midcourse system that would fall afoul of the ABM Treaty.

In addition, development of a new, two-stage booster -- needed for flight engagements that realistically could be expected -- has been seriously delayed for technical reasons. The first booster test, at the time of this writing, was scheduled for August and was late by about a year and a half. That test is slated as simply a test of the booster rocket itself -- without the interceptor.

Perhaps more important, a midcourse missile defense system must demonstrate the ability to discriminate between the reentry vehicle from an incoming enemy missile and decoys, countermeasures, and/or rocket debris. Perfecting such a discrimination capability is one of the biggest scientific obstacles to an effective midcourse system -- which even the Pentagon's missile defense organization admits. And doing so is a very long way away. It will take many tests paced by time, money, and other resources. The ABM Treaty is simply not yet a factor.

Boost Phase

While the Bush administration is expected to continue work on a midcourse system -- in fact, there is little choice as it is farthest along in development -- many NMD supporters are more interested in pursuit of boost-phase systems. The idea behind boost-phase missile defense is to kill the enemy missile when it is the most vulnerable (during its launch or ascent phase) and before its payload can be dispersed and disguised among other objects, decoys, countermeasures, or rocket debris. In addition, a boost-phase intercept likely would happen far away from U.S. territory, because it requires hitting the outgoing enemy missile within a few minutes after it is launched. This means that boost-phase interceptors, whether based on land, at sea, or in the air, must be placed close to the enemy launch site.

The advantages of a boost-phase system are offset by several disadvantages, however. The process of detection and classification of enemy missiles must begin within seconds after a launch, and the intercept must occur within only a few minutes. In some scenarios, an intercept must take place in less than 120 seconds. This will require extremely high-speed tracking/targeting radar and software processing. The entire process of detection, tracking, targeting, and launch of the interceptor would need to be autonomous, commanded by computers.

In other words, there would be no time for the president, national security adviser, or secretary of defense to be involved in the launch decision, much less to coordinate with allied heads of state. Lack of time for consultations with allies could be particularly touchy, since depending on where the enemy missile targeted at the United States was launched from, a boost-phase intercept would mean that the incoming missile, its warhead, and debris would fall on friendly territory. For instance, a North Korean missile aimed at the continental United States could go down in the Sea of Japan; a missile from Iran or Iraq could crash in Europe.

But the need for automation also presents major technical hurdles. Software integration of the detection, tracking, and targeting radar with the interceptor itself presents an enormous challenge, involving millions of lines of code. In fact, integration of the various system components is already recognized as a key challenge facing the less complex theater missile defense systems in development. Reliability testing of such software will be even more critical for boost-phase systems.

But, again, the ABM Treaty is not holding up this kind of work. Various U.S. testing centers could be utilized, and the development of the required sophisticated simulators could take place almost anywhere. In fact, building such complicated simulation technology is another as yet unmet technical challenge to building any national missile defense system.

Boost-phase interceptors could be launched from ships, ground-based rockets, or aircraft, but all face technical issues that will require years to resolve. The U.S. Navy has promoted the use of ships, arguing that its theater defense programs could be expanded to fulfill a NMD role. The navy is now planning to deploy in 2007 its theater-wide system, based on Aegis-class destroyers, for theater-only missions. As currently designed, however, its booster rocket is too slow to undertake NMD intercepts, and its radar is incapable of detecting NMD-class engagements. Major modifications would be required for both components -- as the navy freely acknowledges.

The army's theater high altitude area defense system is scheduled to be deployed in 2008, so any fielding of an NMD variant would be unlikely until well beyond that. Army officials also have stated that in its current configuration THAAD would not be capable of intercepting ICBMs.

Part of the problem is that both the THAAD and the naval theater-wide NMD systems would require the development of new, very fast rockets capable of high-acceleration maneuvering. Such rockets will take years to develop and test.

Both the airborne laser and the spacebased laser pose developmental challenges. In the case of the airborne laser, there are important operational considerations. A Boeing 747 loaded with heavy laser apparatus and flying close to an enemy makes an inviting target. To permit the 747 to stand back from the forward edge of battle, the airborne laser needs exceptionally high power to reach through the atmosphere. In concept, the airborne laser could be used for either theater or national missile defense. Development of such a high-power laser is ongoing at contractor and government test facilities in full compliance with the ABM Treaty. However, it will be many years before the system will have anti-ballistic missile capability and be ready to be tested in an ABM mode.

No one has ever built and fielded, let alone maintained, a high-power laser in space. Moreover, the planned design for the space-based laser is much too heavy to be launched by existing U.S. booster rockets. Perhaps it can be made lighter and more powerful, but this will take at least a dozen years; again, the development and testing is not being held back by the ABM Treaty. Years of development and testing will be needed in a fixed, land-based mode. Development and testing in space will not be practical.

In principle, testing and development of a boost-phase national missile defense system of any sort would -- by the nature of its mobility -- at some stage be prohibited by the ABM Treaty. In reality, the initial development and testing of many of the components (interceptors, boosters, software) could go on now without violating the accord. This is because the components can, and actually should, be tested in their early stages at fixed sites, first in labs and then on test ranges.

The Alaska Option

The Pentagon's fiscal year 2002 budget document proposes a new development and testing effort for the national missile defense program that adds new test facilities in Alaska. Under the ABM Treaty, the procedures for the establishment of a new test site are straightforward, requiring only notification, but the administration has included some features in its recent proposals that might require treaty amendments.

In particular, the Pentagon is developing a contract to begin preparation of an interceptor test site at Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, Alaska. The Department of Defense is considering a move to put five interceptors at the site, linked to an upgraded radar at Shemya Island in Alaska. (However, test missiles will not be launched from Fort Greely because of safety considerations; their flight path would take them over populated areas.)

Under this plan, the Cobra Dane radar on Shemya, now used to track Soviet missile tests, would become an advanced early warning radar for NMD. However, this radar is pointed toward Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East, and cannot see test launches from elsewhere in Alaska, from California, or from Kwajalein. Russia might therefore view the upgraded Cobra Dane radar as a violation of the ABM Treaty. Russia might also view new missile silos at Fort Greely as a treaty violation, since test missiles will not actually be launched from those silos.

The Pentagon has said that construction of the five silos at Fort Greely would "allow tests of operational command and control, communications, and the capability of the long haul communications network; rehearsal of maintenance and upkeep processes; and assessment of the adverse effects of Arctic conditions at a potential operational test site." (Fort Greely is the location of the army's Cold Regions Test Center, and military equipment is tortured at Fort Greely by weather colder than in most parts of the world.) However, this is more an argument for putting operational NMD missile launchers elsewhere than for deploying them at Fort Greely.

If the new site (launchers and radar) were limited to flight testing, then under Article IV of the ABM Treaty (and a 1978 agreed statement between the parties), the United States simply could notify Russia that it was establishing a third ABM test range. Russia could object on the grounds that this test facility would be inconsistent with other articles of the treaty, but it might not do so. The capability of this site would depend on funding decisions and conditions imposed by Congress.

In addition, Pentagon officials have said that testing in Alaska would include shooting both targets and interceptors from the Kodiak facility. While the former is permitted by the treaty, the latter is prohibited unless the United States either gives formal notice of a new test facility under Article IV and Russia acquiesces -- in particular with regard to Fort Greely and the Shemya radar as part of a test range -- or the United States and Russia agree to amend Articles I and III to authorize operations at the Alaskan site.

If Congress agrees with the Bush administration to provide the Alaska "test bed facility" with operational, albeit primitive, warfighting capability, this would violate the treaty when the site was "under construction," unless either (1) Russia acquiesced to this new test facility, or (2) Article I and Article III were amended respectively to permit limited nationwide capability, and to permit deployment of an operational ABM site in Alaska.

Bush administration officials have indicated that the deployment of the "test" launchers at the Fort Greely facility would provide an emergency defense capability, and thus fulfill Bush's campaign promise to speed NMD deployment. However, neither an upgraded Shemya nor missile silos at Fort Greely are necessary for continued development and realistic testing of either national or theater missile defenses.

A Prudent Course of Action

The bottom line is that development of national missile defense could go on for many years without violating the ABM Treaty -- leaving time for negotiations, if needed, about future changes to accommodate whatever NMD system proves most promising. At the same time, it must be stressed that it is relatively easy to design a national missile defense testing program with the sole goal of busting the treaty. The current testing plans seem bent on that course. But doing so would run major risks, both technical and political.

A more prudent course of action would be for President Bush to take a step-wise approach to national missile defense. With the Democrats now controlling the Senate, it would behoove the president to first work out an agreement with Congress on how fast to go on TMD and NMD, as well as what technical approaches to the latter should be pursued. There is fairly robust and widespread support for theater missile defense systems, but that consensus quickly falls apart when it comes to national missile defense. That said, there also is little congressional opposition to continuing research and development for national missile defense -- under limited circumstances and without running afoul of the ABM Treaty, as presently in force, or as it may be amended.

Once such a domestic consensus were reached, the next step would be to begin detailed talks with Moscow about possible and necessary amendments to the treaty. There is nothing to gain, and much to lose, from a near-term unilateral abrogation of the treaty. Indeed, Russian leaders have made it very clear that a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the accord will prompt a swift and negative reaction from Moscow, including a refusal to eliminate multiple warhead ICBMs, to agree to any system for taking missiles off hair-trigger alert, or to accept new transparency measures. There is ample time for such a negotiated agreement. The only question is of the Bush team's political will.

Note: (1) SALT is the acronym for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, START for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2001 issue of World Policy Journal. Copyright 2001 by World Policy Journal.

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