Missile Defense Five Years after the ABM Treaty

By Boese, Wade | Arms Control Today, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Missile Defense Five Years after the ABM Treaty


Boese, Wade, Arms Control Today


News ANALYSIS

Five years after President George W. Bush orchestrated the June 13, 2002, U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to build an "effective" missile defense, the system remains unproven or insufficient in the eyes of many.

Yet, Bush administration officials say that their fledgling strategic missile defense system proved its worth when North Korea fired several ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan last July. Right before the tests, the Bush administration activated the system as a precaution.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and secretary of Defense Robert Gates penned an April 26 Daily Telegraph piece claiming that the defense had helped "promote stability" by allowing U.S. leaders "to consider a wider, more flexible range of responses to a potential attack." John Rood, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, declared in a Feb. 27 speech that the system's activation had "heartened" him.

North Korea's missile launch preparations were no secret last June and had been reported generally as being for testing purposes. Still, Rick Lehner, a spokesperson for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA), told Arms Control Today May 29 that North Korea's intentions were not known and, therefore, the "system was brought to alert status in case it was needed to defend the country." As it turned out, the system was unneeded because North Korea was conducting flight tests, and the Taepo Dong-2, the missile of greatest U.S. concern, flopped approximately 40 seconds into its inaugural flight.

The MDA asserts the defense would have stopped the Taepo Dong-2 had the test been a real attack. lieutenant General Henry Obering, the head of the MDA, told the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee April 11, "I am confident [the system] would have worked."

Not everyone has such confidence. Skeptics and critics point to what they say is skimpy and rudimentary testing of the system, which has components stretching from radars in Japan and the United Kingdom to 18 interceptors deployed in Alaska and California. On the other hand, some missile defense supporters criticize the administration for not being ambitious enough after pulling out of the ABM Treaty, which barred Moscow and Washington from developing nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses.

Although Russia initially had a muted reaction to the U.S. treaty withdrawal, Russian leaders now more strongly assert that U.S. missile defenses, particularly a plan to base interceptors in Poland, are provocative. They imply that if Washington continues to proceed, it could trigger another arms race, which is what Bush and other senior administration officials said would not result from a U.S. ABM Treaty exit.

No Consensus on Capability

Despite its proclaimed confidence in the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), which was the system activated last summer, the administration has had trouble convincing others to share the same view, largely because it has performed few visible tests over the past several years. Indeed, since Bush's December 2002 decision to deploy the GMD system, only one successful intercept test has been conducted (see Table 2).

The MDA hoped to double this tally with a May 25 test, but the experiment was scrubbed when the target missile failed to fly properly.

Obering said the agency would try again this summer.

The sole, recent success came Sept. 1,2006, when a GMD interceptor fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, obliterated a mock warhead launched south from Kodiak Island, Alaska. (see ACT, October 2006.) The interceptor is comprised of powerful boosters that lift into space an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) that detaches from the boosters and, using radar updates and onboard sensors, hones in on and collides with a target at a combined closing speed of 35,000 kilometers per hour. …

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