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January 19, 2011
NDP Report Says Wait on NMD, But Not on Nuclear Reductions
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November/December 1997

By Craig Cerniello

The congressionally mandated National Defense Panel (NDP) submitted its report analyzing U.S. defense and security requirements through the year 2020 to Secretary of Defense William Cohen on December 1. As part of this comprehensive analysis, the nine-member panel, chaired by Philip Odeen, president and chief executive officer of BDM International, recommended that the United States and Russia move to a START III agreement "as rapidly as possible," reaffirmed the Clinton administration's national missile defense (NMD) policy and warned of U.S. vulnerabilities in outer space.

The NDP report, entitled Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century, said, "The key task for U.S. nuclear policy in the first decades of the twenty-first century will be to deter attacks against the United States and its allies, discourage the use of, or the threat to use, nuclear weapons, and promote efforts to achieve balanced and stabilizing reductions in nuclear arsenals." The report noted that achieving deeper reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals is "currently stalled" because the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, has not yet ratified START II, which will limit each side to no more than 3,500 deployed strategic warheads.

In this connection, the NDP report stated that "retaining nuclear arms at current levels for an extended period is not in the U.S. interest." Presently, the United States is prohibited by law from reducing its nuclear arsenal below START I levels (6,000 "accountable" warheads) until Russia has ratified START II. The panel initially voiced its concern about maintaining such a costly force level during its assessment of the May 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). At that time, the NDP said the move to START II force levels "should proceed even if the Duma fails to act on START II this year." (See ACT, May 1997.)

In its discussion of further strategic force reductions, the NDP report said, "Effective deterrence of potential adversaries can be maintained at the reduced levels envisioned by START III and beyond." The United States and Russia are currently holding a series of expert-level discussions on START III, which will limit each side to no more than 2,500 deployed strategic warheads, in anticipation of the Duma's approval of START II. Following such approval, the United States and Russia will begin official negotiations on the new treaty.

As for U.S. missile defense policy, the report stated that "Given the evolving threat and continued improvement of our missile defense technology, a hedging strategy, rather than immediate deployment of a missile defense system, is a sensible approach." This recommendation is consistent with the administration's "3-plus-3" program, which calls for the development of the initial elements of an NMD system by 2000, at which point the United States will assess the ballistic missile threat to its territory and be in a position to deploy such a system by 2003 if necessary. If a long-range missile threat has not been identified by 2000, the United States will continue to develop and refine its NMD system until such a threat does emerge, while maintaining a rolling three-year deployment capability. In contrast to this approach, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) introduced a bill (S.7) last January that would require the United States to deploy a NMD system by the end of 2003 regardless of the ballistic missile threat at that time, but the bill has not yet reached the Senate floor.

In its examination of space operations, the NDP report emphasized that "Unrestricted use of space has become a major strategic interest of the United States." However, the panel cautioned that several vulnerabilities exist in the U.S. space program, such as the small number of U.S. launch installations, and that potential adversaries will have greater access to space in the future. "Therefore, we must take steps now to ensure we have the capability to deny our enemies the use of space," the report said. This recommendation has been interpreted by some observers as an endorsement of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, the development of which has been opposed by the Clinton administration on the grounds that there is no threat justifying their deployment and that such programs would encourage other states to pursue similar activities contrary to U.S. security interests.

On December 15, Secretary Cohen submitted his comments on the NDP report to Congress. In his letter to Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Cohen said "I believe the Panel recommends the correct path for pursuing a national missile defense system. I also agree that we should seek further reductions in nuclear forces, and we intend to do so upon ratification of the START II treaty." Addressing space policy, Cohen stated that "I share the Panel's concern about the vulnerabilities of our space systems.... Military competitors, enabled by commercially available space systems, will obviously seek to reduce our current advantages in space. This challenge requires that we have adequate space control capabilities and better integration of our defense and intelligence community operations."