ABM and Arms Control, Part III
In the first two parts of this series we discussed the genesis of the
ABM treaty of 1972, as well as its intended application. In
addition, we looked at where the U.S. and Russia are today in
terms of strategic warheads, the Clinton administration''s
proposal for a national missile defense system (NMD), and
finally, some concerns held by Russia and China.
This week we will take a look developments from just the past
few days, the George W. Bush proposal for NMD, European
fears, and the Pentagon''s position as well those of its critics.
When President''s Clinton and Putin got together in Moscow two
weeks ago, Clinton presented Putin with the U.S. proposal for a
limited NMD, one which would have required that the ABM
treaty be amended. Putin then surprised the U.S. by stating that
he would be interested in developing some sort of joint program.
But he left the details sketchy.
The past week or so, Putin has traveled to Italy, Germany and
Spain where he and his associates have made one contradictory
remark after another.
For example, after recognizing in his meeting with Clinton that a
rogue nation threat existed, i.e., a ballistic missile launch from
the likes of North Korea or Iran, he then told the German press
that there was no threat from potential rogue states in the Middle
East or Asia.
"The threat of missiles from ''problem countries'' in the Middle
East or in the Asian region invoked by the U.S. does not exist in
principle, neither today nor in the near future." Putin then
"The American position on NMD is a serious error of strategic
calculation that could lead to an increase in the strategic threat to
both the U.S. and Russia, as well as other states."
But then, a little later Putin turns around and proposes a joint
Russian - NATO missile defense system to protect Europe and
Russia against an emerging ballistic missile threat!
Of course, Putin is playing off the U.S. against European fears,
those being that the Clinton plan to build 100 interceptors in
Alaska and to build a battle-management radar system would
undermine the framework of arms control accords and ignite an
arms race. As Michael Gordon writes, "The Europeans are not
convinced that there is a new missile threat, and they are
keenly aware that the administration''s missile defense plan
is not intended to protect them. Putin can exploit this by
casting himself as a philosophical ally."
So perhaps it''s a good time to throw out some potential
scenarios, ones in which the U.S. has no missile defense system.
I have listed similar cases in my "Week in Review"
commentaries but let''s use two that George Will wrote of
Case 1: After Congress approves normalized trade relations with
China, Beijing moves militarily against Taiwan. China invokes
the possibility of a nuclear response if the U.S. interferes, and the
U.S. president, governing a nation incapable of defending itself
from even a single ballistic missile, is militarily paralyzed.
Case 2: In 2005 Saddam reinvades Kuwait and announces that
he has nukes on six ICBMs capable of striking European
capitals. Without being able to offer our European allies
defenses against ballistic missiles, the U.S. president probably
hesitates to act against Iraq. If he does not hesitate, Congress
probably does. And if both want to act, they probably must do so
without European allies.
This is the potential world we are up against. You now know
what President Clinton proposes; two locations with 100
interceptors, each designed to shoot down incoming missiles.
So let''s take a look at where U.S. strategic forces are today, as
spelled out by arms control expert Bruce Blair.
Even though the supposed threat from Russia has declined since
the end of the Cold War, most Americans would be surprised to
learn that the Pentagon''s list of strategic targets has grown from
2,500 in 1995 to 3,000 today. Blair estimates that 1,100 of 2,260
warheads are targeted at Russian nuclear sites. About 500 are
aimed at "conventional" targets - buildings and bases of "a
hollow" Russian army on the verge of disintegration; 160
leadership targets, like government offices and military
command centers, and 500 mostly crumbling factories.
U.S. strategic planners have historically set a level of damage to
inflict on vital targets at 80%, or 1,800 warheads to their targets.
Today, we have 2,200 strategic warheads on alert. Virtually all
of our missiles on land are ready for launch in 2 minutes, and
those on four submarines, two in the Atlantic and two in the
Pacific, are ready to launch on 15 minutes notice. Land-based
missiles must leave the ground fast enough to be sure of being in
the air before Russian missiles can destroy them.
Now the number of overall targets has grown because the U.S.
has put China back into the mix. We probably have hundreds of
secondary targets in China, Iran, Iraq and North Korea that have
weapons assigned to them, though not on immediate alert. The
Pentagon believes today that at least 2,500 warheads are deemed
necessary to carry out nuclear war against Russia and China.
What Blair and, now, George Bush believe is that the attack
options of today are "absurd and grotesque." Bush''s preliminary
proposal is that 1,500 warheads would be more than enough.
And, while Bush has not laid out more specifics (nor should he),
Blair, who has studied this issue extensively, takes that 1,500 and
projects that we could destroy 250 targets of any choice in
retaliation for a surprise attack, or we could destroy 1,000 targets
in retaliation to an attack in a crisis.
So George W. Bush is willing to take the unilateral first step of
reducing our strategic forces in the hope that the Russians would
then follow. And there is precedence for such a move. Back in
1991, George W''s father, President Bush, took the step of
unilaterally removing our intermediate, or tactical, nuclear
weapons from Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev then pulled Russia''s
weapons back from the old Soviet Eastern bloc nations. In
addition, President Bush took redundant missiles and bombers
off alert and Gorbachev reciprocated.
Also back in 1991, President Bush, in a play off of former
President Reagan''s "Star Wars" project, called for GPALS,
"global protection against limited strikes." President Bush
envisioned 750 ground-based interceptors deployed at 6 areas in
the U.S., plus 1,000 space-based interceptors, or "brilliant
pebbles," technology in which thousands of pieces of metal are
fired at an incoming warhead, like buckshot in space. Elements
of this plan are still in the developmental stage but many doubt
So with Clinton proposing his limited defense, candidate Bush
has espoused a broader one, utilizing not just land-based but also
sea-based defensive systems. The latter is a key part of the NMD
Many critics of missile defense argue that a system which targets
incoming missiles, such as a land-based system, will fail, largely
because decoys and other countermeasures are being developed
that can prevent a defensive system from hitting all of the targets
before they go smashing into earth.
The Pentagon believes that a sea-based system, which already
exists on our Aegis cruisers, can be upgraded to deal with a
ballistic missile threat. The advantage of the cruisers, which
could be placed closer to our enemies in time of crisis, is that
they can attack enemy missiles during their initial "boost phase,"
when the ICBM is hot and slow, making it easy to target as well
as easier to hit.
And Bush and his advisors believe that a "boost-phase," sea-
based system aboard ships arrayed against a few specific nations,
would provoke less diplomatic fallout than a land-based system
that could defend the U.S. from any direction.
Bush strategist Condoleeza Rice sums up her candidate''s side of
the missile debate. "The ABM treaty is an artifact of a different
period of time. ABM was designed to prevent national missile
defense. It is not clear to me how, with minor changes (as
Clinton proposes), you get around that. It''s a New World."
Clinton''s proposal says that the limited defensive shield can
address the New World and that the treaty just needs to be
amended. Advisor Strobe Talbott comments that the U.S. "wants
to keep the ABM treaty very much part of the foundation of
international arms control. We don''t want to see it weakened.
We want to see it strengthened."
But, if the U.S. thought ABM was a cornerstone for strategic
stability, then why try to amend it? Or, as columnist Charles
Krauthammer puts it, the mistake that Clinton is making is that
"once you have gone around the world saying that America must
defend itself, you can hardly call for strengthening the treaty that
prevents us from doing exactly that."
And then there are the critics of NMD, those who believe that it
hasn''t been proven to work nor may it ever work. Some
strategists like William Broad have written that they think the
Pentagon is rigging tests of the system in order to convince either
Clinton or a future President Bush that NMD is worth funding.
These skeptics say that, in the tests, the Pentagon is not building
good decoys on purpose in order to make the results look better.
There have been two interception attempts thus far, the first
successful, the second a failure. The next test is scheduled for
July and, off those results, President Clinton is to issue his final
decision on NMD. Of course, a president Bush or Gore could
amend any final plan that Clinton approves.
Lastly, there is Canada, the nation where, under most feasible
scenarios, all missiles will pass over. They may become part of
the extensive debate shortly as well.
So there you have it, a complex issue of critical importance. The
basic positions that I have laid out over the past few weeks will
not likely change. Russia has every incentive to split Europe and
the U.S. Europe has the right to be skeptical that the U.S. would
ever come to their aid in time of crisis. For its part, China has a
good case for helping to scuttle NMD. And, all the while, the
American people have a right to be defended against an attack of
any kind as long as its technically feasible (and I very much
believe it is).
The debate over NMD will become a critical part of campaign
2000. How the candidates handle the issue could be crucial in
deciding who gets elected. And we will be there every step of
Next week...Syria...its past and future.
Sources: [Articles written by the following]
Charles Krauthammer, William Broad, Peter Scoblic,
Michael Gordon, George Will, Robert Suro, Bruce Blair; as well
as various wire service reports.