Defense Secretary Cohen on Upcoming Missile Defense Decision

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Publication date: 
8 August 2000

Sometime this fall, based on a recommendation by Secretary of Defense William Cohen, President Clinton is expected to make a decision about moving forward with a National Missile Defense system. On July 25, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard testimony from Cohen on the inputs to, and impacts of, this upcoming decision. Cohen clarified that Clinton's decision will not be on ultimate deployment of a system, but only on seeking contracts to allow some site construction to begin next year, should the next president choose to proceed. A significant portion of the discussion revolved around how far construction could proceed before being considered a violation of the existing ABM Treaty.

A day later, 31 Democratic senators sent a letter to President Clinton, asking him "not to take any steps toward deployment at this time." The senators' letter cited an April 2000 statement by the American Physical Society (see FYI #52) which urges that no deployment decision be made until the system's effectiveness against countermeasures has been demonstrated. The complete text of the senators' July 26 letter will be included in FYI #95

The National Missile Defense Act of 1999, signed by President Clinton last summer, makes it national policy "to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system," and also "to seek continued negotiated reductions in Russian nuclear forces." Based on warnings of an increasing threat from some rogue nations such as North Korea, the Administration's program is intended to be able to field a limited national missile defense by 2005. In recent months critics on both sides of the issue have urged Clinton to defer to the next president any decision that will impact deployment of the system. Some are worried that Clinton will lock the nation into too limited a system; others criticize progress toward a system they doubt will ever be effective.

At the July 25 hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA) told Cohen, "we're asking you today to clarify for us, as best you can, what body of fact exists as of this day and what additional facts will be developed prior to the president making that decision...and the extent to which this important deployment schedule should be decided upon in part by the president and, obviously, in part by the next president of the United States." Cohen explained that key decisions will be made in a sequential process as the program continues. To enable the next president to field an operational system by 2005, if he so chooses, Cohen said, construction must begin next year on a radar site at Shemya Island, Alaska. The impending question, he elaborated, would be "not actually a deployment decision," but a choice on whether to begin letting construction contracts to "prepare the site should we go forward to give the next president the option" of initiating construction at Shemya.

Cohen is awaiting the results of a Defense Department Deployment Readiness Review (DRR), expected this month, which will inform his recommendation to the president. Cohen's assessment will take into account factors such as threat, technological maturity, affordability, and impacts on relations with other countries. He reiterated that a decision to actually deploy the radar will be made by the next president. It will not be until 2003, if the current schedule holds, that a determination will be made on going forward with production of interceptors for an operational system. "No deployment decision on the final configuration will take place without additional testing and assessment," Cohen testified.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) pointed out that unless the U.S. succeeds in negotiating with Russia on modifications to the ABM Treaty, at some time over the next two years the construction at Shemya will constitute a violation of the treaty. According to Cohen, the current U.S. legal view is that while pouring concrete might not be a breach of the treaty, putting in place the rails to mount the radar would be. He commented that "the Russians will probably say the minute you cut down a tree," it constitutes a violation. But he added, "This decision becomes...important in the sense that, do we make a decision to start down the road?... Would you want to lock the next president into this system, if in fact he has already expressed an interest in going in a different direction? That's why this becomes important, in terms of the legal decision of what point in time" the treaty is breached.

In general, Republican members of the committee, like Sen. Robert Smith (R-NH), urged the Administration to "stay the course" and proceed toward construction. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) argued against the U.S. being tied to the ABM Treaty when "one party [the Soviet Union] doesn't exist anymore." Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) claimed that the decision to deploy was already dictated by law. But Cohen warned that "you can't really separate" the missile defense and arms reduction provisions of the law and deploy "'as soon as it's technically feasible,' without taking into consideration the arms control issues." At another point Cohen said, "now these two [provisions] may be compatible, but they may not be."

Most of the Democratic members present recommended that President Clinton delay any decision related to deployment until further along in the program. Levin remarked that "General [Larry] Welch testified before this committee on June 29 that...while the 2005 deployment target was technically feasible, he does not believe that date is the most likely." Levin declared, "The time has come to acknowledge that the 2005 deployment goal is no longer realistic and it should be adjusted.... There is no point in rushing to failure." Cohen said his recommendation to the President would include an assessment of how realistic the target date is, and he noted that Welch advocated continuing to try to meet it.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) - now Vice President Gore's running mate - was the only Democrat at the hearing to hope "that the president decides to keep it going forward.... Because if we don't...the president in 2003 is not going to have the ability to make the decision [to deploy] because there won't be anything there." He asked if increased funding would help the program advance faster, but Cohen replied, "I do not believe this is a resource issue.... It's the technology itself which has to be proven out, and we have to proceed at a pace that is responsible."

Cohen maintained a balanced position throughout the hearing, and did not indicate what his recommendation to President Clinton will be. He seemed to have confidence that the system will prove to be effective, and that the issue of countermeasures is being adequately addressed. He also seemed optimistic that the Russians would eventually agree to modifications of the ABM Treaty. Yet he repeatedly raised cautions about the impact of deployment on U.S. relations with other countries and future arms control agreements.

The next FYI will provide the text of the Democratic senators' letter to President Clinton.

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