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Center for Strategic Decision Research


Implications of a Limited National Missile Defense

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow
United States Permanent Representative on the North Atlantic Council

A colleague from the Pentagon has already described how our defense planners and technicians are making it possible to “hit a bullet with a bullet,” at a speed of more than 25 times the speed of sound, hundreds of kilometers above ground. Making this happen is a daunting technological challenge.

An even greater challenge, however, is found on the political front. How can we manage the implications of a limited National Missile Defense (NMD) as it concerns our relations with Russia, our transatlantic ties, and the arms control and disarmament structure that has been built up and nurtured so carefully during the last 40 years?

Let me repeat two of my colleague’s key points. President Clinton has not yet made a decision2 on the deployment of a limited NMD system. The decision on whether to move ahead with NMD, anticipated later this year, will be based on four major criteria: the threat, the technology, the cost, and the implications of a limited NMD system for our national security and arms control objectives, including relations with our Allies and with Russia and China. The fourth criterion—the political and security implications of a limited NMD deployment—is the subject of my remarks.


First, it is important to understand what NMD is and what it is not. Headline writers often use the term “Star Wars” or “Son of Star Wars” to describe NMD. In fact, “Star Wars” and NMD are very different. “Star Wars”—the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s—was aimed at protecting the United States against a full strategic attack by forces of the former Soviet Union. In sharp contrast, NMD is designed to give us the ability to block attacks by a few tens of missiles launched against U.S. territory, without undermining our strategic relationship with Russia.

If the President decides to deploy NMD, we would like to do so within the framework of an adapted ABM Treaty that would strictly limit the size of the system in order to preserve strategic stability. The changes we have in mind would leave the U.S.-Russia nuclear balance on the same basis on which it has rested for the last five decades. But these changes would permit us to respond to the new threats that have emerged since the ABM Treaty was signed in 1972. (Treaties sometimes do have to be adapted as the strategic environment changes—a case in point is the CFE Treaty.)


For analytical purposes, let me borrow Deputy Secretary Talbott’s breakdown of the fourth criterion into the “four Ds” that encapsulate Allied worries about NMD, and go into these points in more detail. The four Ds are: destabilization of the strategic balance; decoupling of U.S. and European security; weakening of deterrence; and erosion of disarmament and arms control regimes.

Destabilizationof the Strategic Balance

Let me start with the concern about possible destabilization of the strategic balance, which means the effect on Russia. Russia is the other party to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It still has thousands of nuclear warheads. And Russia’s approach to adapting the ABM Treaty will have a significant impact on the reaction of other states, including China and our Allies in Europe and the Pacific.

Our approach is cooperative. We want to avoid forcing the President to make an either/or choice between the ABM Treaty as it stands and an NMD system that he judges is necessary to protect the American people. To avoid this choice, of course, the Russians must be prepared to negotiate in good faith. At the same time, we need to recognize that Moscow has sincerely held concerns about NMD deployment that must be addressed. Although we anticipate no breakthrough during the President’s meetings in Moscow later in June of 2000, the President and everyone on his foreign policy team are attempting to lay the groundwork for reaching agreement if and when the Russians make a political decision to negotiate ABM Treaty changes. The President will meet several more times with President Putin in the second half of 2000, so the negotiations will continue.

In pursuing an agreement, we are trying to address Russian concerns in three broad areas. First, we are reassuring Moscow that a limited NMD system would not change the foundation of our nuclear relationship because it would not threaten Russia’s strategic deterrent. Accordingly, we are seeking only those changes in the ABM Treaty necessary to address the threats we see emerging—that is, the threats of weapons of mass destruction deployed on long-range ballistic missiles that could come into the hands of unpredictable and dangerous states of concern, such as North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya.

Moreover, since our planning is based on a two-phased approach to NMD architecture, we are also taking a phased approach to changes in the ABM Treaty. Since North Korea poses the most immediate threat to the United States (the deployment of an intercontinental ballistic missile as early as 2005), we currently seek only Treaty amendments to permit a limited NMD system centered in Alaska. As threats that call for a second NMD site emerge from the Middle East, we will seek a second set of Treaty amendments.

This phased approach maximizes our chances of reaching agreement with Russia on ABM Treaty adaptation. Based on objective analysis, neither Phase I nor Phases I and II combined would threaten Russia’s strategic deterrent. Russian officials and commentators have stated repeatedly—and accurately—that Russia has the capability to overwhelm the limited NMD system we have in mind. Late last year, General Vladimir Yakovlev, Commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, said publicly: “The SS-27 is able to breach any anti-missile system that exists in the world and any which will be built in the near future.” Analyses in the Russian military press belie the hyperbole of the Defense Ministry’s chief propagandist, Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov about the impact of NMD on Russia’s deterrent. These analyses show that, even in the hypothetical case of a large-scale U.S. first strike, Russia would still have more than enough warheads to overwhelm the limited NMD we are considering.

Russia’s real concern has been that deployment of a limited NMD system would establish the infrastructure that would permit us to break out of the agreed terms of an adapted ABM Treaty. One of our negotiating challenges will be to give the Russians sufficient confidence that a U.S. NMD system will remain limited. To this end, we have put forward some ideas for confidence-building and transparency measures, including possible enhancements of the ABM Treaty’s verification regime. To the degree that Russia is genuinely concerned about possible NMD expansion, the best way to set that concern to rest is to ensure that any limited NMD system would be deployed within an arms control framework, with the legal limits and extensive transparency and verification measures we are proposing.

The second element of our strategy with Russia is to continue to pursue strategic arms reductions. One of the major accomplishments of START II—its ban on MIRVed ICBMs—was a large step toward eliminating any strategic advantage from a first strike. A START III accord—negotiated in parallel with changes in the ABM Treaty to permit a limited NMD—would ensure that, as Russian strategic force levels decline, U.S. forces will come down as well. In short, we are not seeking—and we are trying to demonstrate to Russia that we are not seeking—to combine NMD with numerically superior U.S. offensive forces. In fact, the reverse is the case.

Finally, we have put on the table a range of cooperative programs in the areas of Theater Missile Defense (TMD), voluntary transparency measures, and assistance in restoring Russia’s ballistic missile early warning network. As President Putin’s National Security Advisor, Sergey Ivanov, acknowledged recently, Russia and the U.S. both face ballistic missile threats—indeed, some of these threats are closer to Russia. Through the various cooperative programs we have proposed, both countries would reap tangible security benefits. They would confirm that a cooperative approach to ballistic missile defense is in our common interest.

The Russians will ultimately have a calculation to make: whether it is better to accept the potential deployment of a limited U.S. NMD system within an adapted ABM Treaty and continue on the path of strategic arms reductions; or, alternatively, to jeopardize the strategic predictability provided by the ABM Treaty and START process at a time when they can least afford an arms buildup.

Decoupling of the U.S. From Europe

Our Allies are concerned about the Russian dimension of NMD, but they also have several concerns about NMD’s effects on NATO and the transatlantic relationship. Since September of 1999, a series of high-level U.S. officials have met Allies in Brussels, Washington, and other capitals to brief them on U.S. thinking and our negotiations with Russia, and to have an in-depth exchange of views on the implications of NMD deployment.

Some Allies fear NMD will undermine the NATO Alliance’s principle of shared risk and could ultimately lead to the “decoupling” of the U.S. from Europe. We do not think this stands up to scrutiny. First of all, there will be no fundamental change in the shared vulnerability of North America and Europe to Russian nuclear forces, and U.S. forces—conventional and nuclear—will remain in Europe as a tangible symbol of “coupling.” Moreover, we believe a limited NMD could actually strengthen U.S. capability and resolve to carry out its NATO and global security commitments in future crises. If the U.S. were capable of defending itself against a small-scale missile attack by a state such as North Korea or Iran, those countries would know that they had no hope of deterring us from coming to the defense of our Allies in Asia or in Europe. Deputy Secretary Talbott has posed the question to the Allies: “Why would the U.S. be a better Ally if we were vulnerable to a missile threat?” We have yet to hear a good answer to that question.

We recognize that, at some point, the question will arise concerning defense for our European Allies against the sort of threats that now concern us. In part, the answer for many Allies may be Theater Missile Defense (TMD); this is because geography suggests that many of the potential missile threats would be of less-than-intercontinental range. TMD is not limited by any treaty, and we have active bilateral programs of cooperation with several Allies on TMD. NATO is conducting important feasibility studies as well, based on the long-established Alliance requirement for a multi-layered air and missile defense. Insofar as the issue extends to potential cooperation against longer-range missiles, we have told the Russians that this is an issue that we reserve the right to raise in future negotiations, including, if needed, broadened rights under the ABM Treaty to cooperate with our Allies. We have told the Allies that we would be open to discussing cooperative steps to meet the threat. In fact, President Clinton said in Lisbon in early June that we would be willing to share anti-missile technology with Allied and friendly countries facing the same threats in the coming years.

Undermining of Deterrence

A third concern voiced by many Allies is that NMD would undermine deterrence. As I noted earlier, with the limited NMD we have in mind, deterrence as we have known it for the past 50 years would remain at the heart of U.S. and NATO strategy vis-à-vis Russia’s nuclear arsenal and against any other conceivable adversary. The core of deterrence is the ability to convince a potential adversary that the risks of attack far outweigh any potential gains. In fact, there are two parts of this equation. The threat of retaliation drives home the point that the negative consequences of aggression would be huge. But deterrence is also bolstered if we can reduce the chance that an attack would succeed. As stated in a recent commentary in the Financial Times, defense complements and reinforces deterrence by “making America’s enemies understand that any attack on its territory would be a futile as well as a fatal gesture.”

Some Allies believe that we are overstating the threat. They simply do not believe that the leaders of countries of concern would launch a suicidal ICBM attack on the U.S. A recent commentary in the London Independent said, “ … the thought of any of the [countries of concern] launching a nuclear strike against the U.S. is ludicrous, given that they would be smoking holes-in-the-ground within hours.” Allies may differ on the intentions of the leaders of North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya. But there can be no doubt that at least some of these countries will acquire the capability to deliver WMD with long-range missiles during the next 5, 10, or 15 years. The possibility for miscalculation will grow exponentially as we try to predict the behavior of these closed states. We agree that these states are unlikely to use their missiles and WMD programs against us. Rather, we believe they seek missile and WMD capabilities primarily as instruments of coercion, to complicate U.S. decision making or limit our freedom to act in a crisis.

Ask yourself this question: “Would our nations have been so ready to liberate Kuwait if Saddam Hussein could have attacked our homelands with chemical or biological weapons aboard long-range missiles?” Once again, missile defense will take away any perceived coercive advantage to those states of concern by denying them the possibility of a successful missile attack.

Let me make one more point about threat. The burden of proof is on those who argue that we are overstating it. They must explain why North Korea, Iran, and Iraq—all poor countries with plenty of more urgent uses for their scarce resources—are seeking intercontinental-range missiles. They do not need ICBMs to intimidate their neighbors—short- and medium-range missiles would suffice. We can only conclude that they want long-range missiles to coerce and threaten more distant countries in North America and Europe. They may believe that even a small number of missiles could be enough to sway our actions in a crisis if we had no defenses against it. It is incumbent on us to minimize the chances of such miscalculation. Limited NMD offers an effective way to do so.

Unraveling of the Arms Control Process

A fourth widespread Allied concern is that NMD will lead to an unraveling of the arms control and disarmament process—a concern undoubtedly reinforced by the Senate’s vote on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and comments made by some politicians and commentators in Washington outside the Administration. We believe strongly, however, that the possible deployment of a limited NMD system is compatible with the ABM Treaty, further START reductions, and the Non Proliferation Treaty and other non-proliferation regimes. President Clinton and other top Administration officials have stated repeatedly that the ABM Treaty remains a cornerstone of strategic stability, and that our proposed modifications are designed to preserve and strengthen the treaty. The ABM Treaty has been amended in the past and allows for changes to take into account changing strategic circumstances. The best way to preserve the ABM Treaty is to avoid putting the President into the position that I described earlier, that is, of being forced to choose between the ABM Treaty and an NMD system that he judges necessary to protect the American people. Allied solidarity on this point—especially in public statements and in meetings with the Russians—would help convince Moscow to negotiate seriously and, as a result, help preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty.

On START, we have consistently reaffirmed that the implementation of stabilizing and verifiable nuclear reductions remains a high priority of U.S. foreign, security, and non-proliferation policy. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has compiled an impressive record of accomplishment on nuclear disarmament—we have eliminated 59% of our nuclear weapons and NATO has reduced its sub-strategic nuclear warheads by 85%. We expect this trend will continue with Russian ratification of START II and renewed engagement on START III, which we hope will lead to even more substantive reductions.


U.S. policymakers take seriously the President’s fourth criterion—the political and security implications of a possible limited NMD deployment. In Washington’s deliberations on this issue, the views of Allies are being carefully considered. After six months of fruitful consultations in Brussels and elsewhere, we recognize that Allies share our strong interest in preserving the ABM Treaty and in avoiding a confrontation with Russia that could threaten prospects for a cooperative relationship. In the end, the President will have to make his decision based on what is best for U.S. security and in the best interests of the American people. While no country will hold a veto over NMD deployment, we have sought the most vigorous possible dialogue with Allies, Russia, and China on the implications of a limited U.S. National Missile Defense.

Fortunately—after an initial period of some misunderstanding—we and our NATO Allies are consulting closely and listening to each other on NMD. I believe that the reality of the missile threat to Europe is coming into focus for our Allies, and hope that this reality will galvanize us toward a common response. When Europe was threatened by Soviet theater-range missiles in the 1980s, the United States listened to its Allies and moved quickly to respond through INF deployments. Acting together then opened the way for successful INF negotiations and the ultimate removal of an entire missile class from Europe.

In this case, we need a different kind of dual-track strategy: considering the necessary defensive measures to deal with the emerging threat, while working to ensure that the international arms control and non-proliferation regimes are not undermined. But the same fundamental truth applies: We will do better if we act together.

We believe our approach to NMD can be carried out in conformance with the core purposes of the ABM Treaty, with further strategic reductions, with a stable strategic environment, and with continued progress against proliferation. We will continue to listen to Allied and international concerns about our plans, as well as seek understanding and support.


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