A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
US NMD: An Issue That Just Won't Go
By Kalpana Chittaranjan *
The idea for an US NMD came about in the late 1950's and has, over the years, grown from strength to strength. Succeeding US administrations have been faced with the questionto deploy or not to deploy. Deployment would mean a violation of the terms of the ABM Treaty of 1972 which would directly affect US relations with Russiavis-à-visstrategic arms control. The article examines issues concerning a possible US NMD deployment under the Clinton Administrationhistory, threat perceptions, NMD architecture, criteria for deployment, feasibility, linkage with the ABM Treaty, decision not to deploy and the reactions.
Day Eight of US Election 2000 - 'too close to call'; 'dimpled' and 'butterfly' ballots; 'spectacle unraveling'; counts; recounts; recounts of recounts; 'blizzard of legal challenges'; 'hanging in the balance'; 'cliffhangar'; 'federal injunction'; 'unprecedented', 'bizarre'; 'legal wrangling', 'suits' and 'countersuits' - just some of the words that have characterised and become familiar terms following Election 2000 to choose a candidate to fill the post of, arguably, the most "powerful job in the world." Whether it is a case of "constitutional crisis" or "democracy in action", time only will reveal, but as the drama unfolds before television screens around the world and Florida waits to resolve which candidate eventually receives the 25 ballots needed to decide whether Al Gore or George Bush becomes the 43rd President of the USA - regardless of who the winner is - there are very important issues awaiting the new incumbent and among these, the issue of National Missile Defense (NMD) will rank in the top five. This article explores the issues concerning a likely US NMD deployment.
It was in the late 1950's that the idea for a national missile defense began when US President Dwight Eisenhower, faced with the prospect of Soviet missile fleets, embarked on a secretive crash programme of antimissile research which included ideas for space-based arms and over a course of time involved thousands of that country's top scientists. Designers scaled down their ambitious approach by the mid 1960's by designing ground-based interceptors tipped with nuclear arms. In case a war broke out, these interceptors were to roar out of their underground silos and race upward to battle incoming waves of enemy warheads, which, in theory, would incinerate them in nuclear fireballs. The Lyndon Johnson administration, in an effort to seize a Republican issue before the 1968 presidential election, proposed plans for deploying such interceptors. However, it was the Richard Nixon administration that actually built them. In October 1975, the Safeguard system was switched on in North Dakota and it was meant to shield nearby missile fields from a disarming first strike. The $25 billion weapon system was abandoned after just 133 days as strategists had concluded that the Soviets could overwhelm it with a rush of new warheads (multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) that were then being fastened onto new missiles. Earlier, the fear of just such expensive spirals of antimissile action and reaction had prompted the US and the former Soviet Union to sign the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 1972, which, in time limited each side to one interceptor site. The experts reasoned that no matter how good the interceptors were, these single sites would be unable to defend large territories. 1 President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars plan was meant to see if enemy missiles could be rendered "impotent and obsolete." This programme, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) but popularly called Star Wars, was made known in a speech that Reagan gave in March 1983. The SDI had been set out in a 175-page document, brought out by the Heritage Foundation and prepared by the former Director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, Lt. General Daniel Graham. In it, Graham recommended the setting up of a system of 400 satellites and space platforms which would constantly stay in orbit, equipped with a number of beam weapons capable of destroying Soviet missiles or enemy missiles as soon as they took off and also in all subsequent sections of their trajectory. Such weapons included systems using light beams and lasers operating on fluorinated hydrogen or using beams of nuclear explosions and directed impulses released by nuclear explosions. In addition, Graham recommended that the Pentagon place into orbit combat satellites capable of destroying Soviet satellites in outer space and deploy ground-based 'energy guns' capable of shooting down enemy missiles before they had a chance of reaching the USA. 2 The SDI sought to extend the antimissile reach beyond the range of ground-based interceptors and to produce many lines of defense, so that in theory, a shield would be developed that could be nearly leakproof, even in a downpour. 3 By 1987, the original mission was implicitly dropped as being unrealistic and the focus shifted from protecting cities to enhanced deterrence by protecting US nuclear weapons from a disarming first strike. Between 1989-1991, under President George Bush, a space-based layer of "Brilliant Pebbles" interceptors, hailed as being so cheap and small that 100, 000 of them could be shot into orbit where they were to ruin rising enemy missiles by force of impact, was added to the plan. However, the end of the Cold War saw political plans for such orbital plan initiaves evaporating and come crashing back to earth after tens of billions of dollars 4 had already been spent. It was only after the Persian Gulf War during which Patriot interceptors sought to blast short-range Iraqi Scuds that hopes revived for a missile defense system in the US as support for more advanced kinds of ground-based interceptors, including ones for nationwide defense grew.
The CIA's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) - 1995 on the missile threat to the US had concluded that the threat from " so-called "rogue states" 5 such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq was unlikely to materialise before 2010 in these words, "No country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada." 6 At the initiative of the Republicans in the US Congress who believed that this threat perception underestimated the ballistic missile threat to the US, the Rumsfeld Commission, named after its Chairman, the former Defence Secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld was created by legislation and set up in 1997. 7 The Commission submitted a report to Congress on its findings and conclusion on July 15, 1998. The mandate of the Commission was to assess the nature and magnitude of the existing and emerging ballistic missile threat to the US. In preparing the report, the Commission examined the ballistic missile threat posed to the 50 states in the US. Its assessment included threats posed by ballistic missiles that were: deployed on the territory of a potentially hostile country; launched from a surface vessel or submarine operating off the coasts of the USA or from an aircraft; deployed by a potentially hostile nation on the territory of a third party to reduce the range required of its ballistic missiles to strike the US. The Commission examined: the potential of both existing and emerging powers to arm ballistic missiles with weapons of mass destruction (WMD)which included the domestic design, development and production of nuclear material and nuclear weapons as well as the potential for states to acquire through clandestine or covert sale, transfer or theft, either technology, material or weapons; biological and chemical weapons programmes of the ballistic missile powers, as well as the potential means for delivering these agents by ballistic missiles. It also reviewed US collection and analysis capabilities to "gain an appreciation for the capability of the US Intelligence Community, today and into the future, to warn of the ballistic missile threat."
The Commission concluded that: 8
Concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces and its friends and allies. These newer, developing threats in North Korea, Iran and Iraq are in addition to those still posed by the existing ballistic missile arsenals of Russia and China, nations with which we are not now in conflict but which remain in uncertain transitions. The newer ballistic missile-equipped nations' capabilities will not match those of US systems for accuracy or reliability. However, they would be able to inflict major destruction on the US within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq). During several of those years, the US might not be aware that such a decision has been made.
This threat perception by the Commission gained ground when the North Koreans, as if on cue, launched the Taepo Dong on August 31, 1998 over Japan. 9
NMD Architecture under Clinton Administration
Before the Rumsfeld Commission submitted its report on July 15, 1998, the Clinton Administration's NMD plan consisted of the "3 + 3" programme which was designed to conduct three years of development and test activities, leading to an integrated system test of the NMD elements in Fiscal Year 1999. If the threat at the time warranted, a decision to deploy could accordingly be made to achieve operational capability in three years. If, however, the threat had not emerged and a deployment of the NMD system was not needed, the programme would anyway continue to enhance the technology of each element and the concomitant capability of the NMD system that could be fielded on a later development schedule. The overarching goal of the "3 + 3" programme was to remain within a three year window of deployment so that an emerging threat could be effectively dealt with. This programme of the Department of Defence consisted of a fixed, land-based architecture. The integrated system tests included six fundamental building blocks: the ground based interceptor; ground based radar; upgraded early warning radars; forward based X-band radars; spacebased infrared system (SBIRS) and battle management, command, control and communications (BM/C3).
The fundamental document of the National Missile Defence Act which was passed by the US Congress in 1999 calls for the US to deploy, "as soon as technically feasible, a national missile defence system capable of defending US territory against ballistic missile attacks." The new schedule had the Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation (BMDO) give its recommendation to US Secretary of Defense William Cohen, by the end of July 2000 which would then allow President Clinton to formulate his decision on whether to go ahead with the NMD. If he gave the go-ahead, work for the first phase of the NMD infrastructure was to have met a 2005 in-service deadline.
The NMD system would be a fixed, land-based, non-nuclear defence system with a space-based detection system, consisting of five elements:
The central feature of the proposed system would be an "exoatmospheric kill vehicle" (EKV) that is designed to be carried atop a rocket which then guides itself to a collision with an incoming warhead The EKV weighs 130 pounds and is 54 inches long and is made by Raytheon at a plant in Tucson, Arizona. The weapon has to find and ram an incoming warhead at about 7, 000 miles per hour. While in space, its function is to guide itself toward the target, as its tiny computer analyses sensor readings and fires thrusters. Its big challenge is to distinguish the decoys from the nuclear warheads, which the sensor tracks through their heat rays and sees as twinkling points of light. Travelling at about two miles a second, the EKV is to slam into the nuclear warhead in space and demolish it by the force of the impact. It picks up the telltale heat emanations of targets only in the last 100 or so seconds before impact. Geoffrey Forden, author of a Congressional Budget Office Report detailed in April 2000, stated that the needed helpers required for the EKV to succeed in finding its quarry were still radars and satellites and he included: 10
lEarly-warning radars. Five existing ones would be improved and a new one built in Asia to help alert the force of interceptor missiles of enemy attack.
lHigh resolution radars. These are used to better resolve targets in space to aid tracking, eliminating decoys and assessing whether targeted warheads have been destroyed. Nine would be built.
lMissile-tracking satellites. These detect heat from newly launched missiles and can help estimate flight paths. Over time, the existing ones would be supplemented by five new ones, all of which would be in high orbits.
lWarhead-tracking satellites. From low orbits, 24 of such satellites would aid in the hunt for warheads and decoys.
lCommand centres. The main centre at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, a bunker hewn out of solid rock, would link all the data, while its officers would fight the defensive war.
lIn-flight relays. Radio transmitters located on the ground would send navigational signals to missile interceptors heading for battle.
The goal of this network is to push the defensive battle as close as possible to enemy territory so as to give military officers time to fire more than one interceptor at a specific warhead, raising the odds of success, apart from aiding kill vehicles.
While the scope of the proposed project is challenging and enormous, it is set to grow in four steps from an initial 20 missile interceptors in 2005 to a much larger system by 2011. When it is complete, the shield would require at least 2 launching sites, 3 command centres, 5 communication relay stations, 15 radars, 29 satellites, 250 underground silos and 250 missile interceptors. It would be based in Hawaii, Alaska, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Greenland, Britain and possibly Maine. In Asia, two radars would be set up, possibly in Japan and South Korea. It would cost a minimum of $ 60 billion and running the system would take at least 1, 455 people with a possibility of having to add hundreds more.
Criteria for NMD Deployment
In a briefing on January 20, 1999, US Defence Secretary William Cohen along with Army General Henry Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spelt out four points on the proposed deployment of an NMD. First, he announced the budgetting of funds for the NMD programme, i.e., the allocation of additional funds to missile programmes and stated that the Clinton Administration was pledging $6.6 billion over five years to field such a system. The money announced was to build the missiles, radars and buildings that would comprise the system and this amount was in addition to $4 billion already allotted for research and development. A decision would be taken in June 2000 whether the necessary technological breakthroughs had been achieved and an assessment made on whether military threats still warranted construction of the system. Second, he affirmed that there was a growing threat that he expected would pose a danger to US troops both at home and abroad. He went on to add, "Our deployment readiness programme has had two key criteria that have to be satisfied before we could make a decision to deploy a limited national missile defense system. There must be a threat to warrant the deployment; and our NMD development must have proceeded sufficiently so that we are technologically able to proceed. What we are saying today is that we now expect the first criterion will soon be met, and technological readiness will be the primary remaining criterion." 11 Third, Cohen talked about the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which imposes strict limitations on NMD. He said that an NMD deployment could require modifications to the treaty and that the Clinton Administration was working on determining the nature and scope of these modifications. The treaty would be amended if necessary. Otherwise, the US would withdraw from the treaty if it was considered to be of supreme national interest. 12 Fourth, Cohen said that the system could not be deployed until the year 2005, which was two years later than originally predicted because a workable missile system would still have to overcome daunting technological obstacles.
Two questions that have dogged the proposed NMD system are whether the defending weapon can survive the boost into orbit and a more fundamental one is whether it can be made to distinguish between a warhead heading for the US and a cloud of decoys, a task that it has to accomplish in about 100 seconds. Three tests have been held so far as part of a series of 19 planned tests. In the first intercept test held in October 1999, the Pentagon initially hailed it as a complete success but was later forced to acknowledge that the kill vehicle had initially drifted off course and picked out the large bright decoy balloon instead of the mock warhead. In the second, more complicated intercept test in January 2000, the kill vehicle missed the mock warhead by between 300 to 400 feet after a cooling line clogged and shut down its heat-seeking sensors. The third test, conducted on July 8, 2000 had a 37-year-old remodeled Minuteman rocket containing a mock warhead and a decoy balloon thundering aloft over the Pacific Ocean from a launching pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, 125 miles north of Los Angeles, at mid-afternoon. Twenty-one minutes later, an EKV was launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, 4, 300 miles away from California. However, instead of guiding itself to a collision with the incoming warhead in midflight, it missed, when the kill vehicle did not separate from its booster in the second stage.
In April 2000, the Union of Concerned Scientists brought out a report entitled, "Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned US National Missile Defense System. 13 The study considered the types of countermeasures that a real adversary could use to counter the NMD system. It then makes a detailed technical assessment of the operational effectiveness of the planned NMD system against a limited attack using three specific countermeasures that would be available to any state able to deploy a long-range ballistic missile. The analysis of the effectiveness of the NMD system assumed that it had all of the sensors and interceptors planned for the full system to be deployed only by 2010 or later. However, countermeasures could be deployed more rapidly and would be available to potential attackers before the US could deploy even the much less capable first phase of the system. The contributors to the study, who are all physicists or engineers, concluded, "The National Missile Defense system under development by the United States would be ineffective against even limited ballistic missile attacks from emerging missile states. Moreover, its deployment would increase nuclear dangers from Russia and China, and impede cooperation by these countries in international efforts to control the proliferation of long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The United States should reconsider its options for countering the threats posed by long-range ballistic missiles and shelve the current NMD plans as unworkable and counterproductive."
Clinton Decides not to Deploy
When President Clinton signed the legislation a year ago calling for a deployment of an NMD system when it was technically feasible, he made clear that he would base his decision on four criteria: whether: the system was technically mature; the threat required it; the cost acceptability in terms of other priorities; and finally, the implications of the decision for the overall security of the US, including the future of arms control. At a speech at Georgetown University on September 1, 2000, he stated that he did not believe that the technology was yet ready for an effective national defense system and passed the decision of whether to deploy an NMD to his successor. He stated, "We have made progress, but we should not move forward until we have absolute confidence the system will work." 14 He went on to add, "A national missile defense, if deployed, should be part of a larger strategy to preserve and enhance the peace, strength and security we now enjoy, and to build an even safer world." 15 It was later that President Clinton, in an interview to the CNN 16 stated on November 20, that he had postponed decision-making on an NMD deployment because he was unable to justify violating the terms of the ABM Treaty of 1972 and because he was not convinced that the US had the necessary technological capabilities for building an effective anti-missile shield. 17
While Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Al Gore praised the action in a three-page statement issued minutes after the announcement, he left some uncertainty on whether a Gore administration would start building a defensive shield. He said the presumed threat of a missile attack from North Korea or Iran was by no means certain, and did not necessarily require the construction of an elaborate and costly shield. However, Gore stated that he would continue to test the feasibility of such a system and would go ahead with deployment of a land-based system if he was "fully convinced" that the technologies were ready. Adopting the present administration's view, he said he would seek to modify the 1972 ABM Treaty instead of scrapping it altogether. Republican presidential nominee, Texas Governor George W Bush said he welcomed the chance as president to make the decision on deployment, but wasted no time in criticising "the Clinton-Gore administration" for the announcement, saying in a one-paragraph statement, "President Clinton and Vice President Gore first denied the need for missile defenses, then delayed. Now they are leaving this important unfinished business for the next president." Bush has all along backed a more extensive system based on land, at sea and possibly in space that would protect the United States and its allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The Republican platform, had, in August 2000 at Philadelphia backed "robust missile defenses" and criticised the White House for becoming "hopelessly entangled in its commitment to an obsolete treaty signed in 1972." 18
Former Russian ambassador to the US, Vladimir P. Lukin, called Clinton's decision predictable and rational and said that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had scored a temporary diplomatic victory. He, however, cautioned that the contentious international issue would return in early 2001. European officials, caught between the US ambitions for missile defenses and the strong opposition from Russia and China, seemed mostly relieved, including President Jacques Chirac of France, one of the most pointed critics of the US plan, who stated that he received Clinton's decision with "great interest" given France's view that the NMD project "risks undermining the strategic equilibrium and a return to the nuclear arms race." 19 President Putin stated on September 3, 2000, "I believe that this considered decision was taken after Clinton consulted with his allies, and hope that Russia's position was taken into account [It is a] well-considered and responsible step [which] will enable us to count on constructive dialogue with our American partners in the future." The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhu Bhangzao, on September 4, 2000, stated, "We hope that the US Government will have more contact and discussions with other countries in the matter so as to make a decision which can serve the fundamental interests of all the countries in the world." 20
Both Russia and China have vigorously opposed a likely US NMD deployment in the past and their objections have been well-documented. Recently, China's third White Paper on national defense, representing the consensus view of the government, issued in October 2000 mentioned the USA 13 times with all but two of the references being negative. This contrasts with 1998 when it had issued its second White Paper in which the US was mentioned ten times, each time positively. While the numbers point to an important shift that could vex the next US administration, Beijing has increasingly viewed the United States as an obstacle to its rise as an Asian power in, what it feels is, a shaky security environment and a strong and, sometimes, arrogant America. Shen Dingli, a prominent arms control expert at Fudan University in Shanghai said, "China's public view of the US has changed quite seriously since 1998. The US has been painted as a threat to Asian-Pacific security. We've never said it so bluntly before I think China is more clearly preparing for a major clash with the United States." 21 The NMD issue is one of the likely sources of friction between the two countries.
From the beginning, Russia has vehemently opposed the proposed US NMD, saying that it will be a violation of the ABM Treaty. The present calm around the Russian-US 1972 ABM Treaty will be, most likely, broken soon, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Strategic Missile Force, General Vladimir Yakovlev felt. According to him, when the presidential elections in the USA are over, the question pertaining to the preservation of this treaty will again be seriously considered at the Russian-American level. Yakovlev believes that judging by the insistence with which the US is striving to change the treaty, "it will be very difficult to find a constructive solution and, what is most important, the solution which Russia needs." 22 Yakovlev pointed out that the essence of the problem is not only in that the American public firmly believes that the NMD should be built, but in the fact than enormous means have already been spent on the improvement of the US national missile defence. That is why, the general says, it will be difficult to stop the process towards deployment of a US NMD.
On November 14, President Putin issued a statement directed towards the US that Moscow was keen on making deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US as soon as possible after a new president took over in the US. Putin was prepared "to consider even lower levels" than the 1, 500 warheads presented by its negotiators in Geneva earlier in 2000 at the outset of negotiations for a START III agreement. Some officials said that Putin would like to cut strategic arsenals to 1, 000 weapons each 23 Russia and the US signed START II in 1993, which reduces the nuclear arsenals of both countries to 3, 000 - 3, 500 each and eliminates Russia's force of large multiple-warhead missiles. 24
The situation that obtains now has been succinctly put by Russian analyst Dmitry Gornostayev, "It looks as if we are watching a dialogue of two simpletons: Russia believes that the Americans also imply the maintenance of the ABM Treaty, while the Americans do not even stop to think that the treaty has any relation to the problem. We cannot expect only positive developments and hope that the USA will suddenly stop preparing for the creation of an NMD system (even if it does not have the technical possibilities now). It would be highly irresponsible to reduce nuclear forces in a situation where the ABM Treaty is threatened." 25 In conclusion, depending on the decision taken by the next president of the USA, on whether to deploy NMD, it will soon become clear whether arms control will take a backseat and instead we become witness to the ushering in of a new arms race in nuclear weapons in the post Cold War era.
Note 3: For arguments raised by proponents and opponents of the Star Wars programme, see Kalpana Chittaranjan, "The ABM Treaty and US NMD," Strategic Analysis, May 1998, vol. XXII, no.2, pp. 212-213. Back
Note 4: Broad, n. 1. So far, all the efforts of deploying space arms over the decades have cost more than $130 billion, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a private group in Washington. Back
Note 5: On June 19, 2000, the Clinton administration declared that "rogue nations" no longer exist. Secretary of State Madeleine K.Albright disclosed the change in the official lexicon when she said, " we are now calling these states 'states of concern.'" Christopher Marquis, "US Declares 'Rogue Nations' are now 'States of Concern', The New York Times, June 20, 2000. Back
Note 6: See DCI National Intelligence Estimate, President's Summary, "Emerging Missile Threats to North America During the Next 15 Years," at website <http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/offdocs/nie9519.htm>. Back
Note 7: For a wider discussion of the Rumsfeld Commission Report, see Kalpana Chittaranjan, "The Rumsfeld Commission Report and US Missile Threat Perception," Strategic Analysis, March 1999, vol. XXII, no. 12, pp.1955-1965. Back
Note 11: .DoD News Briefing at website: <http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jan1999/t01201999t120md.html>. Back
Note 12: .The ABM Treaty was signed between the USA and the Soviet Union on May 26, 1972. For a brief background to the treaty, see Kalpana Chittaranjan, "US and Russian TMD Systems and the ABM Treaty," Strategic Analysis, January 1998, vol. XXI, n. 10, pp.1455-1457. The Treaty provides for the right of withdrawal with six months notice if a party concludes it is in its supreme national interests to do so. Back
Note 22: .Yuri Nikolayev, "C-in-C of the Strategic Missile Force believes that the Present Calm Around the ABM Treaty is Connected with Change of American Administration and Will, Most Likely, Be Broken Soon," Ria Novosti, November 13, 2000. Back
Note 24: .For a detailed analysis on why START II has still not come into effect and why the ABM Treaty plays an important role in its successful implementation, see Kalpana Chittaranjan, "START II Moves - Does it Really?" Strategic Analysis, November 2000, vol. XXIV, no. 8, pp. 1455-1465. Back