Ignoring Arms-Control History Carries a Cost

Article excerpt


Those following the debate over the New START treaty inked by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in April know that both governments dispute what it means. Russia says it'll impose real restrictions on U.S. missile defenses. U.S. officials brush off those claims.

The dispute centers on language in the preamble linking strategic offensive and defensive weapons and claiming such linkage will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced.

Treaty supporters in the U.S. say this language is merely rhetorical; it won't restrict our ability to defend against missiles from Iran, North Korea or elsewhere. It's stunning how easily they dismiss Russia's interpretation. They should review a little history. The Russians may know something they don't.

For example, under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the Soviet Union, the U.S. consistently placed limitations on theater (shorter-range) air and missile defense systems the treaty did not officially cover. Why? Because Pentagon attorneys feared controversy with the Soviets. Their guidance led the U.S. to dumb down the Patriot missile so that it could intercept only slow and low missiles, though nothing in the ABM Treaty required such design and testing limits. As a result, former Strategic Defense Initiative Director Henry F. Cooper confirmed later, In the 1970s, no ballistic missile defense capability was given to [the developmental] SAM-D, now called Patriot.

So what's wrong with shaving a little capability?

It ultimately costs lives. Take the Gulf War. Between August 1990 and the war's outbreak in January 1991, the U.S. rushed to build new Patriot models to counter Iraq's Scud missiles. But they were far less capable than they could have been. More capable interceptors could have prevented an Iraqi missile from killing 28 American soldiers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that February. Lives were lost because overzealous U.S. attorneys, wary of offending the Soviets, went far beyond the letter of the law of the ABM Treaty.

Democratic and Republican administrations also bent over backward to avoid violating ABM Treaty limits on testing systems based on other physical principles. This provision was mistakenly applied to any new technology - particularly to anything for outer space, since that was what most rankled the Russians. The Pentagon intentionally slowed development of space-based defenses. We remain far behind what the technology will allow in space because of the years of dithering caused by the ABM Treaty.

A third example occurred after the Soviet Union collapsed. The U.S. negotiated so-called demarcation agreements with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine - states the Clinton administration sought to make our new ABM Treaty partners. …