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Former IAEA Director-General
Seventeen-Year Locusts

 Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

The congressional clamor for a national missile defense (NMD) is painfully reminiscent of similar past campaigns that, like locusts, have emerged every 17 years to drown out reasoned discourse on U.S. security. Unless President Clinton stands by his threat to veto legislation designed to force a deployment decision, the United States will deliver another blow to prospects for reduction in strategic nuclear forces.

The Senate's 97-3 passage of legislation calling for the deployment of an "effective" NMD "as soon as is technologically possible" has been widely reported as heralding a new consensus for NMD deployment. Actually, the legislation incorporates a conflicting commitment "to seek continued negotiated reductions in Russian nuclear forces." In welcoming the legislation, Clinton made clear that a deployment decision would only be considered next year after a review of technical developments, costs, the threat and "progress in achieving our arms control objectives, including any amendments to the ABM Treaty that may be required to accommodate possible NMD deployment."

The Senate bill itself appears to kick the deployment decision well down the road since Clinton's criteria cannot be met any time soon. However, should an unamended version of the bill, which passed the House, emerge from a Senate-House conference and not be vetoed, it would indeed be seen as a shift in policy and bode ill for presidential resolve on the eve of the 2000 election.

There is little chance that the technology will have been demonstrated by mid-2000. The architecture for the proposed system has not yet even been defined, and the bill's requirement that "effective" defense be provided for all 50 states sets an almost impossible standard for a system consistent with the ABM Treaty. Moreover, the four proposed tests scheduled before the decision will be forced to use surrogate components since prototypes of actual components will not even exist. Based on past experience with unproven systems, costs now estimated at $10 billion–$13 billion could easily double or triple before deployment.

The threat against which the system is designed is unlikely to emerge for many years if ever. Poverty-stricken rogue states, with far more pressing military requirements, will not spend their limited resources on ICBMs. And, if they should do so to demonstrate national prowess, the prospect of devastating retaliation or pre-emption would certainly deter them from using, or even threatening to use, the missiles against the United States.

The United States has understood for more than 30 years the need to limit NMD in order to reduce strategic offensive arms. Senior Russian political and military officials have repeatedly underscored the linkage, and the Duma's draft START II ratification legislation makes clear that U.S. abrogation or violation of the ABM Treaty would be grounds for Russian withdrawal from START II. Any system that could be considered "effective" would involve amending almost every substantive article of the ABM Treaty.

The emergence of NMD enthusiasts, like noisy locusts, has come in roughly 17-year cycles. In 1967, under strong congressional pressure for an NMD, stimulated by the Soviet strategic buildup, deployment of the Moscow ABM system and the 1964 Chinese nuclear tests, President Johnson reluctantly decided to deploy the Sentinel NMD system. In an effort to delink the decision from the Soviet Union, with which efforts were going forward to begin the SALT I negotiations, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced Sentinel as protection against a future rogue Chinese threat. The Chinese threat did not emerge for the next 15 years, and we have lived with it for the last 15 years.

In 1983, President Reagan unveiled "Star Wars" to provide an "impenetrable shield" against even a massive Soviet ballistic missile attack. The concept, which was recognized from the outset as technically unattainable, succumbed despite the infusion of tens of billions of dollars. To establish the legality of Star Wars, the Reagan administration advanced the so-called "broad" interpretation of the ABM Treaty, a concept without legal merit, which sought to permit precisely what the ABM Treaty was designed to prevent. In the end, both the technological fantasy and the legal chicanery came to naught.

Today, we have a new NMD whose purpose is chillingly reminiscent of McNamara's Sentinel system and whose technology is the detritus of Star Wars. President Clinton should stand firm on his position that any decision to deploy an NMD must seriously consider all relevant factors and not be a knee-jerk reaction to a most unlikely threat. If necessary, he should veto legislation that would be perceived as mandating the deployment of an NMD in violation of the ABM Treaty. This decision is too important to be left to the noisy demands of the latest hatch of NMD locusts.