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Star wars redux.

Spurred by memories of Scud missile attacks on U.S. forces and allies in the Gulf War, pressured by hawks in Congress and technocrats at the Pentagon, and concerned about appearing "soft" on defense issues, the Clinton administration is on the road to undermining a key U.S.-Russian arms control agreement with plans to develop and deploy highly capable defenses against ballistic missiles with ranges up to 3,500 kilometers.

The agreement in danger, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, undergirds the entire strategic nuclear arms control regime. Signed in 1972 in conjunction with the first strategic offensive arms limitation treaty, the ABM Treaty originally restricted both U.S. and Soviet defenses against long-range strategic ballistic missiles to 200 launchers/interceptors at two sites on each side. A 1974 protocol reduced this limit to 100 launchers/interceptors at one site.

This stringent constraint on missile defenses has played a crucial role in the nuclear arms control process by ensuring that U.S. and Russian nuclear retaliatory forces will remain effective even if those forces are significantly reduced. Without limits on missile defenses and without the resulting mutual confidence in the ability to deter by inflicting prompt and massive retaliatory punishment, the United States and Russia would have been compelled to increase deployments of offensive nuclear weapons.

Exaggerated threat

In negotiations in Geneva since November 1993, the Clinton administration has been seeking Russian agreement to "clarify" the ABM Treaty by establishing a demarcation line, based on technical performance characteristics, to distinguish between defenses against long-range strategic ballistic missiles, which are constrained by the agreement, and defenses against shorter-range theater (or tactical) missiles, which are not. According to the administration, a clarification" of the treaty is needed in order to "protect our critical interest in deploying highly capable theater-missile defense systems" and thus be able to defend U.S. expeditionary forces and allies against attack from potential future adversaries in the developing world.

The growing threats to U.S. security in the Third World have been repeatedly highlighted by the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Secretary of Defense. The latter claimed in his 1994 Annual Report that now "more than 15 nations have ballistic missiles. By the year 2000, perhaps 20 nations may have them." Both officials also warn that currently "more than 25 countries, many of which are adversaries of the U.S. and its allies, possess or may be developing nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons."

To critics of the administration policy on missile defenses, however, the threats from Third World ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction have been exaggerated or misrepresented. At present, 19 developing states possess theater ballistic missiles. But only three - India, Israel, and North Korea - have actually produced or flight-tested missiles with ranges of more than 1,000 kilometers. The balance of the threat - fully 97 percent, according to the Department of Defense (DOD) - comes from theater ballistic missiles with ranges of 1,000 kilometers or less. The only states that are seeking or already possess theater-ballistic missiles and that might be potential U.S. adversaries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Algeria. But for varying reasons - including the constraints of the international Missile Technology Control Regime, an inadequate technological base, U.N. sanctions (in Iraq's case), and efforts to normalize relations (in the case of North Korea and, possibly, Syria) - none of these countries is likely in the foreseeable future to acquire ballistic missiles with ranges above 1,000 to 1,500 kilometers.

The administration's claim that 25 countries possess or may be developing weapons of mass destruction, supposedly with which to arm these missiles, is also extremely misleading. The list includes existing nuclear powers France, Britain, Russia, and China) as well as three states of the former Soviet Union (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) that are in the process of denuclearization. It also includes three states - Israel, India and Pakistan - which are believed to possess nuclear weapons but are unlikely to become engaged in hostilities with the United States.

Of the remaining countries that might be considered potential threats to the United States, most are not technically capable of achieving those political or military designs. Only North Korea has the requisite infrastructure to develop nuclear weapons and/or long-range missile-delivery systems by the next decade, and it has recently agreed to eliminate precisely those facilities and activities that are most closely related to a nuclear weapons development program. Moreover, Pyongyang will be under heavy and continuous pressure to abandon its advanced ballistic missile program in exchange for formal U.S. recognition and continuing international aid and trade.

Arguments by advocates of theater-missile defense that these systems are needed to protect against missile-delivered chemical or biological weapons also do not hold up under scrutiny. Despite their fearsome reputation, chemical weapons are not a major threat to trained and equipped troops; pound for pound, modern conventional weapons remain much more lethal. It is also unclear how effective biological weapons will be on the battlefield, or whether they or chemical weapons can be effectively dispersed by ballistic missiles. But perhaps the most powerful deterrent against the use of chemical or biological weapons is that they would almost certainly provoke a massive, internationally condoned, conventional retaliation.

In addition to magnifying the potential threat from developing nations, the U.S. government has also tended to exaggerate the actual effectiveness of theater-missile defense systems. News and government reports on encounters between American Patriots and Iraqui Scuds in the Gulf War conveyed the impression of a high-tech defensive triumph. Gulf Commander General Norman Schwarzkopf spoke of "one hundred percent success" and President Bush claimed Patriot was "forty-one [intercepts] for forty-two [engagements]."

Numerous reports have since questioned these successes. For example, John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in the New York Times on October 25, 1994, that independent analysts now believe the 158 Patriot interceptors hit no more than 4 out of 45 Scuds. MIT's Theodore Postol, writing in the Winter 1991-92 issue of International Security, concluded that "our first wartime experience with tactical ballistic-missile defense resulted in what may have been an almost total failure to intercept quite primitive attacking missiles."

Although the Scud-busting image of Patriot interceptors is largely undeserved, the prevailing public impression is that U.S. theater-missile defense systems performed well. The subsequent disclosures about their failures have not dampened enthusiasm for the program on Capitol Hill or within the last two administrations, and the Republicans included deployment of advanced theater-missile defenses in their "Contract with America" in the 1994 election campaign. Exaaggerating the effectiveness of theater-missile defense helps generate political support, but it also forms the basis for a spiraling series of chronic worst-case analyses and "prudent" - often excessive - responses that characterized the worst moments of the U.S.-Soviet strategic relationship.

Sleight of hand

The administration's exaggeration of the Third-World threat pales next to its approach to "clarifying" the ABM Treaty. It is probably possible to use technical performance characteristics to distinguish treaty-limited strategic missiles from treaty-permitted theater-missile defenses. The problem is that the administration wants to define theater-missile defenses so broadly as to include very high-performance interceptors, such as the Army's Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) with significant potential to shoot down strategic-ballistic-missile warheads. Thus, under the guise of "clarifying" the treaty, the United States and Russia would, in reality, undercut it by defining theater-missile defense in such a way as to permit the deployment of large numbers of advanced interceptors with significant strategic capability.

In Geneva at the Standing Consultative Commission of the ABM Treaty, the United States initially proposed that "any [anti-tactical ballistic missile] system that is not tested against a ballistic missile target with a maximum speed in excess of 5 kilometers per second will be deemed to be an [anti-tactical ballistic missile! system, and not an ABM." At this speed, there would be a buffer zone of about 1.5 kilometers per second between target velocity and the speed of Russia's slowest modern strategic system, the SS-N-18 submarine-launched ballistic missile.

The United States also called for distinguishing between theater-and strategic-missile defenses solely on the basis of demonstrated - that is, tested - capability. The seemingly straightforward approach of using actual test performance to distinguish between strategic and theater defenses, however, is potentially more damaging to the treaty than are the permissive technical parameters under discussion. It was put forward to overcome the prohibition against giving any non-ABM system the "capability" to counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements (such as reentry vehicles) in flight trajectory. This important provision [Article VI (a) of the treaty] gives the parties the right to challenge as a violation any high-performance system that has an "inherent" capability to counter strategic ballistic missiles, even if that capability has not been "demonstrated."

Limiting "inherent" rather than "demonstrated" capabilities has been - and, in other arenas, remains - a cardinal principle of U.S. arms control policy. Unless this principle is maintained, a number of agreements could be circumvented easily. For example, in recent talks with Beijing on the Missile Technology Control Regime, the United States has insisted that China's M- I I missile, which has never actually violated the regime's range/payload guidelines, be subject to the regime because of its inherent capability" to exceed specified range limits when carrying a lighter payload.

Russia has agreed, in principle, to a speed limit of 5 kilometers per second and a range limit of 3,500 kilometers on target vehicles, but it has also proposed a speed limit on interceptors of 3 kilometers per second. In July 1994, the United States conditionally agreed to this speed limit for ground-based interceptors but proposed much higher limits (4.5 kilometers per second and 5.5 kilometers per second) for sea-based and air-based interceptors, respectively. Russia has also agreed, in principle, to the U.S. proposal to use only "demonstrated" capability as the measure of a tactical defensive system. This means the parties cannot challenge as a treaty violation the deployment of highly capable interceptors as long as they do not exceed the agreed performance parameters during tests.

One additional aspect of the clarification" discussion involves the role of Congress. Based on administration testimony in 1972 and on statements made in hearings in 1994, the Senate has been informed t under the ABM Treaty, as currently understood, systems such as the Army's THAAD and its even more capable Navy and Air Force counterparts, are considered to be ABM systems. Changes in the treaty to permit their deployment as non-ABM systems would, under U.S. law, normally be considered treaty amendments subject to Senate approval.

With the recent midterm elections and the change in the political orientation of Congress, it is difficult to predict Senate reaction to the administration's current efforts. At a minimum, missile-defense proponents will be anxious to ensure that future options are not foreclosed by an agreement that contains specific performance parameters. Conversely, opponents will be eager to ensure that the ABM Treaty and the future U.S.-Russian strategic relationship will not be endangered by changes in treaty interpretation that allow overly permissive limits on theater-missile defense performance.

Problems proliferate

If approved, the proposed "clarification" would severely weaken the ABM Treaty by allowing the use of powerful theater-ballistic-missile systems. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a missile interceptor such as THAAD, supported by ground-based radar, could protect an area of roughly 48,000 square kilometers against a missile with a 3,000-kilometer range and a speed of roughly 4.7 kilometers per second. THAAD's defended area against strategic missiles, which travel between 6 and 7 kilometers per second, would be somewhat smaller, but the system would nonetheless be capable of protecting a large metropolitan area.. If linked, as planned, to a space-based sensor like Brilliant Eyes, which would greatly increase the amount of information available to the defense, THAAD could defend a multi-state region against a missile traveling at 7 kilometers per second.

In addition, even if the performance parameters of non-ABM systems were initially constrained to acceptable levels, the United States has made it explicit in Geneva, in order to satisfy its conservative critics, that it reserves the right at any time to "revisit" (in other words, loosen) any technical limits established at this time on non-ABM systems. According to Lt. Gen Malcolm O'Neill, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, "we make it clear in our discussions [with the Russians in the Standing Consultative Commission! that these are first-phase limitations, and we open with a statement that these numbers are going to be revisited and can be revisited as we determine what the specific requirements are for missile defense."

Moreover, abandoning the criterion of "inherent" capability in favor of "demonstrated" capability opens the door for the future development and deployment of other, even more capable, defensive systems. These defenses would still be considered non-ABM systems as long as they were not tested to their full potential, but they would provide a basis for a future rapid "breakout" from the overall constraints of the ABM Treaty and would inevitably affect the strategic calculations of both sides.

Another major problem is that large numbers of high-performance missile-defense systems, even if they are defined as "tactical," are bound to have a chilling effect on efforts to shrink strategic nuclear arsenals. At present, the United States plans to deploy up to 4,600 "core-system" interceptors: 1,300 THAAD, 1,500 Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3), and 1,800 Navy lower-tier defenses, at a cost of at least $16 billion, excluding operation and support after deployment.

If Russia deploys several thousand of its own interceptors (and it has indicated it intends to arm at least some of them with nuclear warheads) it may well impede the strategic offensive nuclear force reductions (to 3,000 to 3,500 warheads) scheduled to take place under the START 11 treaty. It almost certainly will make reductions below 3,000 to 3,500 difficult. This loss of momentum in strategic nuclear arms reductions could, in turn, handicap efforts to maintain the nonproliferation regime. In the worst case, theater-missile-defense deployments could actually reinvigorate the arms race between the United States and Russia.

Highly capable defenses against tactical missiles will also have a major impact on the strategic deterrent forces of the other nuclear powers. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), most French, British, and Chinese strategic systems have ranges of roughly 5,000 to 8,000 kilometers and travel between 5.75 and 6.75 kilometers per second. CRS notes that "by permitting unrestricted missile-defense! capabilities against roughly 3,200-kilometer [range] missiles, [anti-tactical ballistic-missile-defense] systems could be deployed so as to jeopardize the effectiveness of virtually all of the ballistic-missile nuclear forces of Britain, France, [and] China."

It is quite likely that U.S. and Russian deployment of thousands of advanced tactical-missile defenses will reinforce existing British, French, and Chinese reluctance to reduce their own nuclear forces, if not actually encourage them to increase their size significantly. In 1992, for example, Britain's State Secretary for Defense wrote that "[t]he exact number [of strategic warheads] deployed will reflect our judgement of the minimum required to constitute a credible and effective deterrent. Over time, we may have reason to revise this assessment, for example, if there are significant developments in anti-ballistic missile systems." And on November 9, 1994, the New York Times reported that "Chinese military leaders are said to be concerned that if the United States goes forward with deployment of a theater-missile-defense system, including one that would protect American forces in the Pacific, China's modest nuclear force could be rendered impotent." China would undoubtedly be even more concerned about Russian deployment of theater-missile defenses, because they could counter Chinese theater-range forces targeted on Russia.

Yet another concern is that not only will the core theater missile-defense systems (THAAD, PAC-3, and Navy lower-tier) be expensive, but they also are only the first part of the anticipated U.S. defense program against tactical missiles. The Navy is planning for an upper-tier missile that would be even more capable than THAAD. In support of sea-based missile defenses, one admiral has already claimed that this system could provide a nationwide defense against strategic ballistic missiles.

There are also plans to develop an air-based "boost-phase interceptor" plus advanced spacebased sensors capable of tracking attacking warheads much earlier in their flight than ground- based radars can. Taken as a whole, CBO estimates that the entire theater-missile-defense program will cost $50 billion between 1995 and 2010. (Since the introduction of the Strategic Defense Initiative in the early 1980s, ballistic-missile-defense programs have cost more than $34 billion.) This is exclusive of operating costs, which would run at least $400 million annually by 2010. The CBO projections do not allow for inflation or cost overruns, which historically have increased major defense project costs substantially.

A multibillion-dollar theater-missile-defense budget projection also raises a host of questions about cost effectiveness, particularly in an era of tight defense budgets. Should the United States spend billions of dollars to prepare for a very small if not nonexistent number of contingencies in which long-range theater missiles might actually be used against U.S. expeditionary forces? Or should it redirect its defense dollars toward more immediate readiness and force projection challenges? Should the United States undermine existing nonproliferation arrangements such as the Nonproliferation Treaty, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the International Atomic Energy Agency by deploying systems that implicitly anticipate the failure of these agreements? Or should it devote more effort and resources (but still considerably less than would be required by theater-missile defense) to strengthen and enhance the operation of the existing regime? And should the United States spend billions for the defense of its allies and its forces abroad? Or should it prepare for the protection of its own territory and citizens?

Finally, it should be patently obvious that large-scale Russian deployments of highly capable theater-missile-defense systems (with the potential to be turned into anti-strategic missile defenses) run contrary to U.S. long-term security interests. Since his first trip to Moscow last March and most recently at the presentation of the Defense Department's nuclear-posture review, Defense Secretary William Perry has stressed the need to hedge against the possibility of Moscow emerging "from her turbulence as an authoritarian, militaristic, imperialistic nation, hostile to the West," as he remarked in a speech at George Washington University on March 14, 1994.

Perry and other senior officials of this and the previous administration have also warned about the profusion of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Russia and about the need to reduce, consolidate, and dismantle Russia's tactical nuclear arsenal. Permitting (one is tempted to say encouraging) the Russians to deploy large numbers of high-performance missile interceptors with nuclear warheads is a strange way either to hedge against a turn for the political worse in our relationship or to encourage Moscow to reduce its nonstrategic nuclear stockpile.

An alternative plan

Notwithstanding all these issues, it is possible to devise a policy that will permit development and deployment of theater-missile-defense systems without destroying the ABM Treaty. Such a policy would consist of three parts.

First, the United States would have to define the future ballistic-missile threat more realistically and adjust the permitted range and speed limit for targets in theater-ballistic-missile tests from an exaggerated 3,500 kilometers and 5 kilometers per second to 1,000 kilometers and 3 kilometers per second. That would be a far more realistic assessment of the nature of the threat. This threat could be managed successfully by the improved Patriot-like system under development, the PAC-3. In this connection, it is worth recalling that during the presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton cautioned that the Strategic Defense Initiative "should be geared to the real threats we face today and are likely to face in the future, not the fevered rationalizations of a weapons program in search of a mission."

Second, the administration would have to drop its efforts to restrict the basis for differentiating between theater and strategic defenses to "demonstrated" test performance only. Insistence on limits based on inherent capability and not just "intent" or "performance" has been at the heart of the U.S. position throughout the strategic nuclear force negotiations. The elimination of the important "capability" criterion from the ABM Treaty means that highly capable missile defenses can be developed and deployed without limit.

And third, the administration would have to accept a series of collateral qualitative, numerical, and geographic constraints on theater-missile-defense testing and deployment. That means, for example, no space-based components, no more than 1,000 launchers/interceptors, and no deployment near strategic-missile fields. These constraints would help prevent the very real possibility that, under the guise of theater-missile defense, large-scale deployments of advanced antimissile systems would establish the base for rapid deployment of a nationwide ABM defense and interfere with further, deeper strategic-force reductions.

The pressures on the Clinton administration to pursue the development and deployment of new theater-missile-defense systems are enormous. But although there is great political appeal in developing systems to "protect our boys" in foreign fields, other vital U.S. security interests are at stake. Before we tinker with the ABM Treaty, permit potentially strategic missile defenses to be deployed under the guise of theater-missile defense, and interfere with a critical security relationship, the issues surrounding theater-missile defense deserve a thorough and public review.

Recommended reading

"The Future of Theater Missile Defense." Washington, D.C.: Congressional Budget Office, June 1994. "The ABM Treaty Under Attack," Theater Missile Defense Special Issue, Arms Control Today, September 1994. Seymour M. Hersh, "Missile Wars." The New Yorker, September 26, 1994. Steven A. Hildreth, "The ABM Treaty and Theater Missile Defense: Proposed Changes and Potential Implications." Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 1994.

Jack Mendelsohn, a former senior Foreign Service officer who served on the U.S. SALT II and START I delegations, is deputy director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty
Author:Mendelsohn, Jack
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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