START AND THE ABM TREATY –

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THEIR LINKAGE?

 

 

Michael O. Wheeler

October, 2000

 

I would like to thank Stephen Duso-Bauduin for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper at the recent CCADD international conference, and the participants at that conference for a spirited discussion of the issues raised by this paper. The observations and conclusions in this paper remain, of course, solely my responsibility.

Introduction.

One of the most intense and potentially most momentous debates taking place today with respect to future directions in American security policy concerns the status and future of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty. Camille Grand astutely noted in the September 2000 issue of the American periodical, Arms Control Today, that the European debate on missile defense is just beginning whereas the American debate has long been underway. This paper is written not so much as a polemic (that would take much more space than is appropriate for present purposes), but as a brief survey of what has transpired in the American debate to date.

As for the topic of the paper—the linkage between the arms control regime for missile defenses and strategic offensive systems—it would be remise to begin the discussion without acknowledging that the linkage has been there from the start. Indeed, in 1972 after preliminary talks which began as early as 1966 on the margins of the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Conference and formal negotiations from 1969 onward, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the interim agreement on strategic offensive arms (SALT I) and the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty. SALT I was followed in 1979 by SALT II which never entered into force (it was derailed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia) but which the two sides continued to observe until 1986. The Reagan administration shifted the focus of the strategic arms talks to reductions, as reflected in the new acronym, Strategic Arms REDUCTION Talks (START), which also denotes the resulting treaties. In 1991, START I was signed, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Once the question of accession to the

Soviet nuclear legacy was resolved, START I entered into force in 1994. By that time, a second treaty, START II, had been signed. START II has not yet entered into force, in part because of disagreements on the ABM Treaty. Preliminary discussions on START III have begun but appear stalemated for the moment.

 

The ABM treaty was signed in 1972 and amended in 1974. Today it is at the heart of a new debate. As for the treaty’s status, some American authorities argue that it is null and void, not having survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. This by no means is a consensus view in the United States. The Clinton administration strongly asserts the continued status of the ABM treaty, and each of the presidential candidates—although they disagree on how to proceed—appears to accept the treaty’s relevance. The Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, is critical of the Clinton approach to NMD and advocates a much stronger form of ballistic missile defense, to be pursued cooperatively within the framework of an amended ABM treaty if Russia agrees, or unilaterally--notwithstanding the ABM treaty--if Russia balks. Al Gore position on the future architecture of the treaty is somewhat less clear (he walks a fine line today as a sitting vice president and as a presidential candidate), but he appears less willing to proceed without negotiated Russian agreement.

 

Russia asserts that U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty will wreck START and perhaps force withdrawal from INF as well. America’s allies have registered strong concerns about departures from or changes to the ABM treaty. China threatens an arms race if the U.S. pursues NMD or cooperates with nations in East Asia in developing robust theater missile defense (TMD) for the region. And as was evident at the recently completed non-proliferation treaty (NPT) review conference, the collapse of the ABM treaty could cause the non-proliferation regime to unravel. One need not be an expert on the details of the debate to understand that the implications for international relations are profound. It is by no means clear that any of these developments are inevitable, and indeed some of them (e.g., Chinese nuclear modernization) are almost certain to proceed regardless of what happens in the ABM treaty dispute. But the linkages are real.

 

What is perhaps most surprising to long-time observers of the American debate is that despite the high stakes, there is surprising strong sentiment in the United States to proceed with some form of ballistic missile defense and a belief among the defense experts in both political parties that the international politics of NMD are manageable. One cannot understand this sentiment and how it affects linkage unless one appreciates the truly evolutionary nature of the debate over the past one hundred years (and I emphasize one hundred because the technologies and the challenges posed to military and civilian planners date to the beginning of the 20th century). This paper aims to place the current debate in context by briefly examining how we got to where we are today.

 

The first U.S. debate on ballistic missile defense.

 

The challenge that air-delivered munitions pose to rules of warfare and to security was recognized as early as the Hague Conference of 1899 in discussions that addressed the issue of whether to ban aerial bombardment. The most perplexing question regarded the threat of such attacks on essentially civilian targets. Aerial technology was still fairly primitive at the turn of the century but from the perspective of forward-looking planners, it was clear that it simply was a matter of time before cities could be subject to attack, a reality which came into sharper focus in World War I. In the Great War, the U.S. also established its first military requirement for guided missiles and from that point forward the science and technology base for manned aircraft and guided missiles unfolded along a synergistic path.

 

From the perspective of strategic planners, once one starts developing offensive applications of any major technology, thinking about defense automatically follows.

Between the two world wars, American research and development for aircraft and missiles proceeded slowly. The massive mobilization effort to fight World War II created the modern American aircraft industry (which later served as the base for the missile industry), and the German V-weapon campaign focused attention on future vulnerabilities of the American homeland to attack by aircraft and missiles. Initial emphasis in the U.S. after the war was on how to cope with air attack, and architectures for such defenses were developed—early warning, command and control networks, interceptors, and the like. Air defense programs were poorly funded, however, until the Korean War. After fighting in Korea erupted, fiscal priorities reversed and the U.S. set out to develop a robust capability to defend itself against air attack.

 

No defense ever has been or will be perfect but a case can and traditionally has been made for less than perfect defenses. It is difficult to think of any major military technology that has not triggered a search for countermeasures. By the early 1950s, ballistic missile development was well underway in the United States and the Soviet Union, and in 1955—as extensions of their efforts to develop better defenses against advanced aircraft—the U.S. Army and Air Force put teams under contract to explore the feasibility of defense against ballistic missile attack. At the time, the Army was responsible for ‘point defense’ of targets in the U.S. while the Air Force had the mission of ‘area’ defense. The Army’s study, called Nike II, examined how to adapt its surface-to-air missile (SAM) technology base to defending against ballistic missiles. By the late 1950s, roles and missions had been clarified, with the Air Force responsible for early warning and the Army for the interceptors. Nike II evolved into the Nike-Zeus program.

 

When this effort began, many within the American engineering community were skeptical whether it was technically feasible to intercept a target traveling at 24,000 feet per second. Bell Labs modified its analogue simulator that was used to model SAMs to explore the problem of ballistic missile intercepts. More than 50,000 simulations were run under a wide range of threat parameters and intercept altitudes, proving conclusively that it indeed was within technical reach to develop anti-ballistic missile (ABM) interceptors.

 

The ABM development effort became more imperative in 1957 after the Soviets launched Sputnik. A dedicated test range was built on Kwajalein Island in the Pacific for testing Nike-Zeus and in October 1960, the ABM passed a major milestone when it intercepted a Nike-Hercules target vehicle. In December 1962 it finally was tested successfully against an Atlas ICBM.

 

Meanwhile, a number of systems studies explored the technical problems associated with intercepting ballistic missiles, e.g., defeating penetration aids, dealing with a massed strike, operating in nuclear environments. The ABM program adjusted and re-adjusted itself to address such concerns. After Sputnik, the Army championed a crash program for deploying Nike-Zeus. The Eisenhower administration kept this under review and one of the major decisions inherited by the incoming Kennedy administration was whether to proceed to deployment. At the same time, the ABM program was maturing. Nike-Zeus gave way to Nike-X, a systems architecture employing large phased-array radar and a layered defense using Sprint and Spartan missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Throughout this process, the pace and scope of the threat was monitored and debated.

 

As Soviet ICBM forces grew stronger, the U.S. decided that an elaborate air defense system of the kind developed in the 1950s could be defeated, and investment in air defense was scaled back accordingly (although a modest air defense capability was retained). After China exploded its first nuclear weapon in the fall of 1964, attention also turned to the problem of how to defense against an emerging Chinese ICBM threat. Then as now, planners face the reality of uncertain knowledge of adversaries’ intentions and capabilities, which must be reconciled with the long lead-times to put defenses in place. Then as today, that is a highly judgmental process.

 

Arms control also began to enter the picture. U.S. approaches to arms control had evolved over the years. At the Hague Conference of 1899, it was an American proposal to place a five-year moratorium on the launching of projectiles and/or explosives from the air. Between the wars, notwithstanding its withdrawal into isolationism, the U.S. engaged in the several major naval arms limitations conferences, and in 1946—now having abandoned isolationism—the U.S. advanced the first plan for control of nuclear weapons. By the early 1960s, the nuclear arms race was entering a dangerous phase. The limited test-ban agreement in the summer of 1963 and the first Chinese nuclear test in the fall of 1964 were followed by a decision by the Johnson administration in 1965 to seriously pursue a nuclear non-proliferation treaty. As stated earlier, quiet U.S.-Soviet discussions on strategic arms began in early 1966 at the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Conference where the NPT was being negotiated. The strategic arms discussions proceeded slowly and fitfully through 1967 into 1968 until the Johnson administration finally convinced the Soviets to set a date for the opening of strategic arms talks in order to buttress the NPT that was completed in the fall of 1968. Plans for the strategic arms talks were announced the same day the NPT was opened for signature, only to be delayed (as was the entry into force of the NPT itself) by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

 

The years 1966 to 1968 were critical for the evolution of American thinking on ballistic missile defense. Faced with the fact that the Soviets had deployed their own ABM system and with Congressional pressure building on the eve of the 1968 presidential elections, President Johnson decided in the fall of 1967 to deploy the Sentinel system, essentially a modification of the Nike-X architecture. While incapable of defending against a massive Soviet attack on American cities, Sentinel was designed to cope with the forecast ICBM capabilities of China by the early 1970s. Recall that at the time of the Sentinel decision, the U.S. was deeply engaged in a land war in Vietnam, and China was in the midst of its Cultural Revolution. This combination of circumstances made the Chinese threat both feasible and frightening.

 

The Nixon administration took office in early 1969, by which time domestic opposition to continued involvement in Vietnam had spilled over into the broader U.S. defense debate. The Sentinel system was opposed by a broad domestic faction, and in February 1969, the Nixon White House announced that the Sentinel program would not be discontinued and that a revised system, Safeguard, would be deployed instead, reoriented to primarily defend U.S. Minuteman missile fields from Soviet attack.

 

In late 1969, U.S.-Soviet strategic arms talks finally began in Helsinki. By the summer of 1972, the negotiations resulted in two agreements: an interim agreement on strategic offensive arms (SALT I) and the ABM treaty. Essentially, this framework enshrined assured destruction—or as it has been recast by critics, mutual assured destruction, MAD—as the governing doctrine. By banning the deployment of ABM systems for territorial defense, the ABM treaty in theory left both parties hostage to one another’s strategic offensive ballistic missile forces. The ABM treaty did permit limited defense of the national capital or one regional missile site (amended by the 1974 protocol to be one or the other). The Soviets opted to defend Moscow. The U.S. briefly activated an ABM Safeguard facility to defend the Minuteman missile field around Grand Forks, North Dakota. That system was operational for several months before Congress shut it down and directed that ballistic missile defense should be reoriented to guard against possible Soviet breakout from the ABM Treaty.

 

The closing down of the Grand Forks ABM site ended the first major U.S. debate on ballistic missile defense. By 1976, it had become standard wisdom in many U.S. policy circles that the only feasible doctrine for protecting the U.S. against ballistic missile attack by a determined adversary with a large nuclear stockpile was deterrence through the threat of retaliation which assured destruction of the enemy; and that an offense-defense ballistic missile race favors the offense. The doctrinal commitment to assured destruction was uncomfortable, even for its true believers and it should come as no surprise that the second major BMD debate already was emerging when Grand Forks site was shut down.

 

The second U.S. debate on ballistic missile defense.

 

As backdrop to the second debate, one must appreciate that the U.S. had decided in the early 1960s to freeze the size of its ballistic missile force, hoping that the Soviets would follow suit. The Soviets did not, nor was it evident that they had accepted the logic of deterrence based upon assured destruction. The Nixon administration, notwithstanding its public criticism of assured destruction, concluded SALT I and the ABM treaty, arguing that otherwise the Soviets would pull far ahead in ballistic missiles and defenses while the U.S. Congress unilaterally constrained American programs. The inequities of SALT I were defended on the ground of U.S. advantages in multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology. SALT I did freeze the number of ICBM silos and submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers the Soviets could possess, but it did not freeze advances in MIRV technology. Within a year of SALT I’s signature, the Soviets had embarked on a flight test program for a new generation of ballistic missiles, several of which were equipped with multiple warheads. Perhaps most threatening from the perspective of U.S. critics (many of whom joined the Committee on the Present Danger), SALT I did not effectively constrain Soviet heavy ICBM programs which, coupled with Soviet MIRVs, appeared to be designed for the purpose of attacking American Minuteman missile fields.

 

In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president. Reagan, while far from being an expert on nuclear matters, was morally repelled by the logic of MAD. By 1981, a number of competing technologies—chemical lasers, X-ray lasers, kinetic kill vehicles—portended new options for ballistic missile defense. The Reagan administration commenced a major rearmament program. Its strategic modernization efforts, specifically, deployment decisions for the MX missile, got caught up in the overall debate. A number of constituencies emerged with an interest in missile defenses—e.g., High Frontier, the Lawrence Livermore advocates of the X-ray laser, the JCS—and with access to the White House. In circumstances still not entirely clear, in March 1983 President Reagan announced that the United States would seek ballistic missile defenses. As the President said:

 

 

Over the course of these discussions [with my national security advisors], I’ve become more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence….Tonight, consistent with our obligations of the ABM Treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I’m taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles….My fellow Americans, tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history.

 

 

It was unclear at first whether this was rhetorical hyperbole or serious policy. As the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was formed and substantial funding flowed to the program, the debate intensified. In a speech to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia in February 1985, Paul Nitze—by that time the senior arms control advisor to the secretary of state and to the president—laid out the criteria for assessing SDI apart from the political issues: military effectiveness, survivability, and cost-effectiveness at the margins. The architecture of the SDI program evolved, shifting by the late 1980s from space-based lasers to kinetic-kill interceptors based in space. By early 1987, the JCS had convinced the Secretary of Defense to place SDIO within the normal acquisition process, subjecting the technical program to the reviews and milestones that any other major defense program would undergo. And throughout this process, cost estimates for SDIO were debated.

 

But the more fundamental disagreements concerned two separate issues: whether some nuclear doctrine other than assured destruction was possible, and whether an ABM system as envisioned by SDIO could be deployed without triggering a new and costly arms race that would, in the end, still leave CONUS vulnerable to nuclear attack. Both of these issues deserve careful scrutiny.

 

As mentioned earlier, even the advocates of assured destruction were uncomfortable with its implications. In 1983, the American Catholic Bishops in their pastoral letter on war and peace gave a carefully worded, conditional approval of deterrence as a transitional strategy, "one justifiable only in conjunction with resolute determination to pursue arms control and disarmament." While not Catholic and while not sanguine of the long-term prospects of arms control to resolve underlying problems, there is strong evidence that President Reagan was morally disturbed by the prospects of relying indefinitely on the threat of assured nuclear retaliation as the basis for ultimate security in the nuclear age.

 

It is beyond the scope of this paper to pursue the argument of the morality of mutual assured destruction. Suffice it to say that the night thoughts of any American president during the Cold War had to involve at least two questions: (1) Do the Soviets really believe I would launch a nuclear apocalypse, and—indeed—do I believe it? And (2) What can I do to try to protect my people and our allies if deterrence fails? That was part of the atmosphere within which SDI emerged.

 

One of the most compelling issues regarding SDIO at the time, which intersected with the arms control agenda of the 1980s, was whether deployment of advanced strategic defenses could be accomplished without triggering a major new phase in the East-West nuclear arms race. The arms race was well underway, largely independent of SDI. It is worth recalling that since the 1970s, Europeans had been disturbed by Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles--a new generation of MIRVed, mobile intermediate-range ballistic missiles threatening NATO Europe. In December 1970, NATO foreign and defense ministers at a special meeting in Brussels took the so-called dual-track decision to modernize NATO’s theater nuclear forces while pursuing arms control talks which, if they eliminated SS-20s, could obviate the need for deployment of a new generation of American ballistic and cruise missiles in Europe. Theater nuclear force talks had begun at the end of the Carter administration, to be overtaken by the election. They resumed in the fall of 1981, now under the title Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF). Despite intense Soviet pressure on the alliance, the governments in the deployment nations took the hard decision to go forward and in the fall of 1983 the new generation of American missiles begin arriving in Europe. The Soviets walked out of the INF talks, and refused to set a date for resuming the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) which had begun in 1982.

 

The Soviet Union was going through political turmoil as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s. A visibly failing Leonid Brezhnev finally died, to be replaced first by Yury Andropov (who himself was ill and died within two years), and then by the geriatric Konstantin Chernenko. Arms control talks resumed in March 1985, now under an umbrella delegation that addressed INF, START, and Defense and Space (D&S) issues. That same month, Chernenko died. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union finally turned to a young, dynamic Mikhail Gorbachev. The arms control talks were on the verge of a new phase.

 

In October 1985, reacting to Soviet intransigence on ABM issues, the Reagan administration abruptly announced its ‘broad interpretation’ of the ABM Treaty. This sparked a constitutional crisis, as the Senate reasserted its powers regarding treaties. Reagan and Gorbachev met in Geneva in November 1985, and within three months, Gorbachev unveiled his radical proposal for the elimination of all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. This deeply disturbed America’s NATO allies who still remained heavily dependent on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for their security, but it privately received serious attention by the White House. How serious that attention was, was revealed at the Reyjkavik summit in October 1986. Details of Reyjkavik still are obscure. What is relevant to the current discussion is that Reagan refused to budge on SDI. Shortly thereafter Gorbachev fully delinked INF from SDI. The INF treaty was signed at the Washington summit in December 1987. INF—and the general spirit surrounding the political relationship that emerged from 1985 onward—led to the miracles of 1989, the effective end of the Cold War without an apocalyptic military confrontation.

 

SDI, dubbed ‘Star Wars’ by its critics, explored the technical feasibility of moving ABM defenses into space. Prior to the end of the Cold War, SDI’s critics were convinced that this could not be accomplished without triggering a major new arms race. The issue of technical feasibility intersected that argument, with critics ridiculing the vision of a perfect defense. By this time, the debate had become so polarized that it was hard to separate fact from assertion.

 

The third (current) U.S. debate on ballistic missile defense.

 

As the Cold War wound down, the contours of the next debate began to emerge. In comments at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in February 1990, several months before the Gulf War, President Bush said that new missile threats beyond those of the Soviet Union deserved attention. Iraq’s Scud campaign in the Gulf War publicized this concern. By 1991, the U.S. was accelerating its efforts to develop better theater missile defenses (TMD), while the Nunn-Warner Missile Defense Act of 1991 envisioned a national missile defense (NMD) against small threats over the mid-term. The U.S. had a vested interest in seeing Russia transition to a functioning market-based democracy, and while it hedged against the prospect of backsliding which could again threaten the U.S., the imperative that had driven SDI evaporated. At the same time, however, concern mounted that the breakup of the Soviet empire would create new instabilities, e.g., the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction out of the Former Soviet Union, or an increased possibility of accidental or unauthorized launch of Russian nuclear weapons. A new and more complicated dialogue was about to begin.

 

Bill Clinton took office in January 1993 as the first post-Cold War American president. His new administration moved quickly to emphasize TMD while shifting NMD to a readiness program. SDIO was renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), a move that was substantive as well as symbolic, since BMDO no longer reported directly to the Secretary of Defense. A Democratically controlled Congress cut the BMDO budget below even what the Clinton Department of Defense requested.

 

As TMD development continued, the administration engaged the post-Soviet successor states to the ABM Treaty, negotiating demarcation agreements in 1997 which would accommodate some of the upper-tier ABM interceptors envisioned in BMDO’s TMD architecture. By that time the mid-term election of 1994 returned Congress to a Republican majority. NMD had been part of the ‘Contract with America’ which the House Republicans used to focus their new agenda. In 1995, when Congress moved to legislate deployment of a multi-site, ground-based NMD system by 2003, President Clinton vetoed the legislation, although he did support a major increase in BMDO funding for NMD.

 

In the 1996 presidential election, NMD became a campaign issue (although certainly not one that dominated the campaign). The Clinton administration shifted NMD to the so-called ‘3-plus-3’ strategy, namely, move the program to the point it could deploy within three years of a decision that a threat was emerging. The decisive turning point was when the Congressionally chartered Rumsfeld Commission unanimously concluded that the ballistic missile threat to CONUS from nations like North Korea, Iran, and potentially Iraq was developing far faster than had been projected by the intelligence community. One month after the Rumsfeld report was delivered to Congress in July 1998, the North Koreans reinforced its message by unexpectedly launching a three-stage Tapeo-Dong missile over Japan in an attempt to launch a satellite. Flown on a ballistic trajectory, such a staged ballistic missile could strike U.S. territory.

 

By early 1999, the Clinton administration had announced that it would conduct a defense readiness review in the year 2000 to assess the technology readiness and cost of deploying an NMD optimized, initially, against a North Korean threat. The four criteria to be applied to any final deployment decision were threat, technology readiness, cost, and political considerations. Senior administration officials specified that the political considerations include arms control, and the reactions of Russia, China, European allies, and other nations. On 1 September 2000, with his task made somewhat easier by the poor testing record of the NMD system his administration was pursuing, President Clinton announced that he would defer the decision to the next administration.

 

Thoughts on the future.

 

This brings us to the point where the paper began. The linkages of the ABM treaty not only to START but also to broader issues of international stability and arms control are profoundly real. So is the sentiment in the United States to proceed with some type of NMD. Thus the critical question is whether the U.S. can accomplish transition to NMD in a stabilizing fashion, without unraveling the arms control regime (including START), alienating its allies and friends, and triggering a new arms race. What does the past tell us to illuminate the question of where to go from here?

 

So far as threat is concerned, the case is compelling that if hostile nations with major resources engage in a ballistic missile offense-defense race, over time the offense can prevail. The United States today is seeking to convince Russia and China, the two nations for whom this dynamic may apply, that an American NMD will not threaten whatever assured destruction relationship exists or should exist in the future between them and the United States. Some have suggested that an appropriate relationship between the U.S. and Russia or China is a mutual assured security relationship. That is somewhat deceptive. If the U.S. finds itself in a seriously hostile relationship with Russia, Russian nuclear forces, today and as projected in the near-term, provide Russia the capability to destroy American society. China, while apparently not in that posture today, may well be moving to some such a posture in the future, current decisions on NMD notwithstanding. Thus, for the foreseeable future, the logic of past arguments about offense-defense races—set against the backdrop of assured destruction--appears to still apply at the major power level. Whether the United States and other major nuclear powers can move beyond assured destruction remains a political, not a technical question.

 

This is not, however, the end of the debate. Is there a threat from countries like North Korea? One has to take the Rumsfeld report seriously. North Korea remains the most closed society in the world (recent moves notwithstanding), ruled by one of the least understood and potentially most isolated dictators. It remains a state under siege, and there appears no easy transition which preserves its political system and the absolute authority of its leaders while transitioning it to a modern society. There is striking consensus today within the U.S. intelligence community and in the U.S. domestic debate that North Korea may be able hold U.S. cities at risk with ballistic missiles in the near term. It may not be a sophisticated threat, but it will be at least as sophisticated as the nuclear missile threat that Moscow posed to NATO in the early 1950s with its first-generation missiles. Can such a threat from a country like North Korea, Iran, or Iraq be used to coerce the United States from not playing a stabilizing role in regional crises? That is an important part of the security debate today.

 

What about the effectiveness of ballistic missile defense? Technologies have been maturing over time. The system engineering challenge to making ballistic missile defense work is formidable and command and control remains an especially difficult task. But there is no overwhelmingly technical reason why a ballistic missile defense against a North Korea-like threat cannot work. It may be less than perfect. Any defense is. But the experience with most major weapons programs is that they mature not only while in development, but much more rapidly once they are deployed and stressed through frequent exercises and modifications. Dealing with penetration aids remains difficult. Many technical experts believe it is not impossible.

 

As for cost, anyone acquainted with the defense acquisition process is likely to agree that however carefully one tries to determine life-cycle costs, there is an enormous range of uncertainty. This should not be surprising. Systems adapt over time, in unexpected ways and with changes in technology that no one can anticipate (witness what has happened to the cost of computing power over the past two decades). ABM systems are expensive. There is no reason to expect that they will be more expensive over time than any of the other high-technology successes of the past century.

 

In the final analysis, the real debate is likely to turn on considerations that are not well illuminated by the technical and financial criteria. Is the United States prepared to abandon deterrence and seek a miracle defense? No, but as the history of the Cold War demonstrates, responsible American officials always had to look at the dark side of deterrence, namely, the possibility that it could fail. North Korea (or whatever country replaces it in the threat lexicon over the next fifty years) may threaten the United States with weapons of mass destruction that can be delivered covertly, delivered by aircraft, delivered from ships sailing into U.S. harbors, and so forth. With the one exception of ballistic missiles, if the President of the United States received evidence that such an attack was pending, he would have defensive as well as offensive options for seeking to prevent it. The absence of BMD is the striking exception. There is no question that the United States also possesses sufficient power to destroy any such nation that launched a missile attack on the U.S. Whether such power credibly underwrites deterrence, however, is a continuing concern, especially against nations where miscalculation and desperation may be part of any crisis equation. One of the morally and pragmatically most corrosive arguments is the one sometimes heard, that if an American president received advance notice of a missile attack on the U.S., he could set in motion a pre-emptive strike. The political and operational realities of attempting to pursue that option are intensely destabilizing.

 

Perhaps most compelling in the long run, is the United States prepared to live in a world where others have formidable defenses against ballistic missiles and the United States does not? As the current debate unfolds, TMD proceeds robustly. TMD for many countries is the same as NMD, given the threats they face. Russia continues to deploy an ABM system to protect Moscow, a point that tends to be lost in the debate.

 

The decisions in the near future will not be easy, but if—as many expect—the United States moves to a limited NMD, the decisions also need not destabilize the world, notwithstanding the complicated history of the issue and the explicit/implicit linkages which this paper has briefly explored.