The Theater Missile Defense Threat to U.S. Security

Arms Control Today, September 1994 | Go to article overview

The Theater Missile Defense Threat to U.S. Security


Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., president and executive director of the Arms Control Association, was deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Carter.

The Clinton administration has embraced a major program to develop a family of theater missile defense (TMD) systems to protect U.S. forces and allies overseas. The large scale of the undertaking is reflected in Congressional Budget Office estimates that currently planned development and procurement alone will cost around $50 billion through the year 2010. This figure could easily double if the proposed advanced-capability systems are actually deployed and the historical pattern of cost escalation of high-technology programs prevails.

The program also has created a major policy issue because three of the six systems in the program would constitute clear violations of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which places strict limits on systems with potential ABM capabilities.

To legalize these systems, the administration is currently attempting to obtain Russian agreement to a reinterpretation of the ABM Treaty that would place them outside the reach of the treaty. But given the inherent conflict between the potential capabilities of these systems against strategic missiles and the treaty's main objective to limit the deployment of strategic defenses, the reinterpretations under discussion would severely weaken the ABM Treaty as an effective barrier to the deployment of nationwide U.S. and Russian ABM defenses. This barrier, which preserves mutual assured deterrence, has long been a fundamental pillar of U.S. security policy and a basic assumption of planners in Moscow and Beijing as well.

The ABM Treaty, like any other international commitment, is not sacrosanct. The treaty specifically states that it can be amended by mutual agreement or terminated if either party concludes that the treaty is contrary to its "supreme interests." But the administration has failed to make the case that a sufficient threat will exist to justify an extremely expensive TMD program that also requires substantial ABM Treaty amendments, thereby reducing U.S. security.

To the extent that a theater ballistic missile threat can be anticipated, there appears to have been little assessment of the additional value of the proposed systems (which are not treaty compliant) as compared to the security provided by an improved and relatively inexpensive upgraded version of the Patriot system (which could be treaty compliant). Nor, apparently, has the question been addressed as to whether a highly redundant, very high-technology TMD program is the best way to invest $50 billion to $100 billion to defend against developing world threats when there are strong domestic pressure to reduce military spending.

As for fundamental U.S. security interests, the prospect of the United States or Russia deploying unlimited numbers of sophisticated land-, sea- and air-based TMD systems that could provide a nationwide ballistic missile defense or base would probably prevent further reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic forces below the START II levels. Moreover, such TMD deployments would undoubtedly reinforce opposition in Britain, China and France to any reductions in their strategic forces. International recognition that the nuclear-weapon states do not intend to seek further nuclear arms reductions would certainly be used as an argument against the indefinite extension of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at the April 1995 review and extension conference.

Misleading Threat Assessment

The administration advocates the TMD program as a necessary response to an emerging ballistic missile threat from the developing world. The secretary of defense's Report to the President and the Congress for 1994 states that "Today, more than 15 nations have ballistic missiles. By the year 2000, perhaps 20 nations may have them." Moreover, the report warns that, "Currently more than 25 countries, many of them adversaries of the United States, possess or may be developing nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

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