Withdrawal Is Premature

By Pena, Charles; Eland, Ivan | Arms Control Today, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

Withdrawal Is Premature


Pena, Charles, Eland, Ivan, Arms Control Today


It is far too early to make a deployment decision-and that is the only point at which the United States would need either to withdraw from the treaty or to modify it.

The development of a limited national missile defense to protect the U.S. homeland may eventually require withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, but now is not the time to have made that decision.

First, the testing program for the most mature strategic missile defense technology-the limited, land-based, midcourse system-remains in its infancy. National missile defense is the most complex weapon system ever developed, and the technology is unproven. Therefore, as with any other high-tech weapon system, a thorough test program is needed. Because the ABM Treaty permits research of fixed, land-based ABM technology, development of this system-- including increasingly more complex and operationally realistic tests, such as those using countermeasures and decoys--could continue within the constraints of the treaty.

Eighteen tests of the land-based strategic midcourse system are scheduled and, although the results of testing to date have been promising (three of the five tests conducted so far have been considered successful), it is still too early to determine the operational viability of the system. The technological difficulties have been recently highlighted by a test failure of the system's rocket booster and the repeated delays in the space-based infrared system, which is designed to provide tracking and guidance for the system. In other words, it is far too early to make a deployment decision-and that is the only point at which the United States would need either to withdraw from the treaty or to modify it.

Punctuating the immaturity of U.S. missile defense technology and the need for more testing before a deployment decision can be made, the Pentagon cancelled a Navy program for ship-based, short-range ballistic missile defense the day after the U.S. announcement to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The program, Navy Area Wide, was supposedly one of the most advanced of the theater ballistic missile systems, whose slower-moving targets present far less of a technical challenge than the ICBM warheads that the land-based strategic system will be intended to counter.

Apparently, Navy Area Wide had problems with integrating targeting computers with the Aegis radar system, and the landbased system could experience similar problems with integrating its various components. Ironically, one of the reasons the Bush administration decided to withdraw from the ABM Treaty was to pursue sea-based missile defense against long-range ballistic missiles. But canceling the Navy Area Wide program does not bode well for the more difficult prospect of sea-based missile defense against long-range missiles.

In light of this cancellation, the claim made by Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy, that at the president's direction, the Navy's Aegis-- equipped ships could be "immediately upgraded as a matter of the utmost priority... [and] given limited capability to intercept ballistic missiles roughly six months after the ABM Treaty expires" needs to be viewed with healthy skepticism. Indeed, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, the head of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), said that strategic, seabased defenses could not be ready before the end of the decade. Although advocates would wish otherwise, the truth is that the technology and system integration for effective missile defense cannot be rushed as a simple matter of political will and presidential direction.

Second, President George W. Bush claims that the ABM Treaty "hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks." But those threats are not existing ones that warrant an immediate withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Ballistic missiles are the least likely means by which terrorists would deliver a weapon against the United States because terrorists would have greater difficulty developing, acquiring, or using an ICBM than they would delivering a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon by other means. …

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