In Retrospect: Senate Rejection of National Missile Defense System

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Publication date: 
21 July 2000

Test Amendment Last week, the Senate voted 52-48 against an amendment offered by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), to require "operationally- realistic testing against countermeasures for national missile defense." This amendment to the defense authorization act was supported by all Senate Democrats and three Republicans: Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and James Jeffords of Vermont.

Durbin's amendment somewhat paralleled a statement issued earlier this year by the American Physical Society Council which stated, in part: "The United States should not make a deployment decision relative to the planned National Missile Defense (NMD) system unless that system is shown - through analysis and through intercept tests - to be effective against the types of offensive countermeasures that an attacker could reasonably be expected to deploy with its long-range missiles."

Durbin's amendment directed that ground and flight testing of the system include "countermeasures (including decoys) that . . . are likely, or at least realistically possible, to be used against the system; and . . . are chosen for testing on the basis of what countermeasure capabilities a long-range missile could have and is likely to have, taking into consideration the technology that the country deploying the missile would have or could likely acquire; and . . . to determine the extent to which the exoatmospheric kill vehicle and the National Missile Defense system can reliably discriminate between warheads and such countermeasures." The Durbin amendment was also proposed by Senators Paul Wellstone (D-MN), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Tim Johnson (D-SD), John Kerry (D-MA), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Senate debate on the amendment ran for about two hours on the night of July 12. In describing his amendment Durbin called the decision "high stakes poker. We are talking about a decision, in terms of our national defense, which may be one of the most important in history." "Whether one thinks that deciding to deploy a national missile defense system at this moment is a good idea or not, I hope we can all agree that once that system becomes operational, it should work," he said.

Supporting Durbin was Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), stating, "This is the fourth time since the late fifties that we have talked about a missile defense program. Each time there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. Then scientists and independent observers do a careful analysis. After that, the enthusiasm wanes. I do not believe this time will be any different." He later added, "Have the threats to which we are responding been exaggerated and more driven by politics than accurate threat assessments and hard science?" Senator John Kerry (D-MA) also mentioned scientists in his remarks, telling his colleagues, "We face a situation where we are talking about putting together a system that the best scientists in the world tell us could literally be rendered absolutely inoperative, if it is simply deployed; all you have to do it put the system out there, and you have the ability to create decoys with fairly unsophisticated technology."

Speaking against the amendment was Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA). His stated objective to the amendment was a provision that "The Secretary of Defense shall reconvene the Panel on Reducing Risk in Ballistic Missile Defense Flight Test Programs." He then said, "A panel . . . is continuing work in this area. When you direct the Secretary of Defense to do something the panel is already doing . . . what is this about? That is why we will not accept the amendment. It has some constructive parts to it, but you are directing the Secretary of Defense to do something he is already doing. That is my concern."

Following statements by other senators, Durbin concluded by saying, "This amendment is not intended to derail the national missile defense system. It is intended to make certain that the system, if American comes to rely on it for national defense, actually works." Warner replied, "I thank my colleague. I daresay the final conference report in the Armed Services bill will draw on this amendment for certain portions of the law that we write."

Remarks by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) appearing in the Congressional Record for that evening were critical of scientists opposing the system. Cochran stated, "There are possible countermeasures to every weapon and those are considered as a matter of course in the design and testing of every system. We don't have legislation directing realistic operational testing against any possible countermeasures for the F-22, for example, and I see no reason to single out this particular weapon system for such treatment. Most of the recent talk about countermeasures to the NMD system has been generated by wild accusations from some college professors who have long opposed missile defenses of any sort. They would have us believe that countermeasures can become reality for even technologically unsophisticated nations simply because they can be imagined. But in the real world, in which ideas have to be translated to design, and design to hardware, and the hardware tested, the reality is far different."

There were fewer remarks the next day before the vote was taken. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) said, "What the amendment doesn't say is whether a missile defense system is a good idea, or a bad idea. Frankly, I believe we do not have enough information yet to make that call." Following Daschle's remarks, Senator Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) put into the record a letter signed by 50 Nobel laureates urging President Clinton "not to make the decision to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system during the remaining months of your administration. The system would offer little protection and would do grave harm to this nation's core security interests. We and other independent scientists have long argued that anti-ballistic missile systems, particularly those attempting to intercept reentry vehicles in space, will inevitably lose in an arms race of improvements of offensive missiles."

Cochran replied that "the Durbin amendment is unnecessary. It purports to direct the manner and details of a missile testing program that the Secretary of Defense is committed to conduct already." Cochran then called for a vote to table the Durbin amendment, which is a parliamentary move used to kill an amendment. Cochran's colleagues agreed with him, by a vote of 52 yes to 48 no.

President Clinton requested $1.7 billion for NMD for FY 2001. The House authorization bill would provide $1.8 billion; the Senate bill would provide $1.9 billion.