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"[Arms Control Today is] Absolutely essential reading for the upcoming Congressional budget debate on the 2018 #NPR and its specific recommendations ... well-informed, insightful, balanced, and filled with common sense."

– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
DOD Official Says NMD System May Require Treaty Withdrawal

IN OCTOBER 2 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said that "our recourse would be to withdraw" from the ABM Treaty if a decision were made to deploy a national missile defense (NMD) system requiring amendments to the treaty and if these amendments could not be negotiated in the necessary timeframe. Hamre's statement is the strongest to date by the Clinton administration on the relationship between NMD deployment and the ABM Treaty. At the same hearing, General Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined, for the first time, the schedule under which such amendments would have to be negotiated to enable the United States to deploy an NMD system by 2003.

Despite these disturbing developments, the United States and Russia, together with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine reaffirmed the "fundamental importance" of the ABM Treaty at its fifth review conference, conducted during the September 9–October 14 session of the Standing Consultative Commission (SCC) in Geneva.

 

NMD and the ABM Treaty

In his prepared statement, Hamre said: With respect to NMD deployment, at the time of a decision to deploy an NMD system, we would determine whether the system we intend to deploy would comply with the ABM Treaty. If we determined that deployment of an NMD system would require changes to the Treaty, we would seek agreement on such changes. If, contrary to our expectations, we were not able to reach agreement in the necessary timeframe, then our recourse would be to withdraw from the Treaty because of supreme national interests, which the Treaty permits on six months' notice. Secretary [of Defense William] Cohen has authorized me to be very clear on this point. (Emphasis added.) Although the United States intends to engage Russia on possible amendments to the ABM Treaty allowing for NMD deployment, Hamre said, "[W]e will not permit protracted negotiations to delay our deployment and prolong a risk to our people."

The Clinton administration has consistently stated that the development phase of its NMD program is compliant with the ABM Treaty, but that the deployed system, depending on its configuration, may require amendments to the treaty. Hamre's testimony took this long-standing policy one step further by mentioning the possibility of withdrawal from the treaty.

In his testimony, General Ralston stated that in order for the United States to be able to make an NMD deployment decision in fiscal year (FY) 2000, as planned in the administration's "3+3" program, ABM Treaty modification issues "may need to be fully addressed and evaluated" by December 1999, with negotiations completed by May 2000.

During the same hearing, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) called on the administration to immediately begin "preliminary discussions" with the Russians on NMD deployment and the ABM Treaty. The United States "might as well begin discussions now…since it may take some time for those discussions to bear fruit," Levin argued. On October 6, Cohen told the committee that he favored preliminary discussions with Russia on the NMD deployment issue.

These developments occurred as several members of Congress continued to attack the ABM Treaty and called for more robust missile defenses. In an October 5 letter to Clinton, a group of eight senators, led by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), stated that "the ABM Treaty did not survive the dissolution of the Soviet Union." The treaty can only be revived, declared the senators, if the Senate approves the memorandum of understanding (MOU) identifying Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine as the successor states to the former Soviet Union under the treaty.

In an October 21 letter to Clinton, Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) urged the administration to commit to an NMD system "that includes ground-based, sea-based, and space-based components," the last two of which are prohibited by the ABM Treaty. That same day, Clinton signed the FY 1999 omnibus appropriations bill, which includes an additional $1 billion for ballistic missile defenses beyond the $3.5 billion already approved for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

 

ABM Review Conference

In an October 14 joint statement following the latest mandated five-year review of the ABM Treaty, representatives from the United States, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine "agreed that the [ABM] Treaty continues to operate effectively and reaffirmed the fundamental importance of the Treaty, as a cornerstone of strategic stability, for strengthening international security and for promoting the process of further reductions in strategic offensive arms."

The representatives stressed the importance of the September 1997 package of ABM-related agreements in ensuring the treaty's effective implementation. This package, which has been submitted to the Russian Duma but not the U.S. Senate, includes agreements on treaty succession, establishing a "demarcation line" between permitted theater missile defense (TMD) systems and restricted ABM systems, confidence-building measures (CBMs) pertaining to TMD deployment, and new operating regulations for the SCC.

Also at this session of the SCC, the five states completed implementing details for the CBMs agreement. In the eyes of key Duma members, the positive outcome of the SCC meeting may partially offset the damaging statements on NMD made at the October 2 Senate hearing.