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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Heat on ABM

The heat is increasing in the dispute over anti-missile defenses. The U.S. National Missile Defense, or NMD, contradicts the U.S.-Russian Antiballistic Missile Treaty, a pact seen for more than 25 years as the cornerstone of strategic arms control. If the United States decides to deploy NMD - a decision expected from President Clinton this summer - without negotiating an amendment of the ABM Treaty with Russia, the consequences in foreign relations might be grave. There are also vivid internal political dimensions of this dispute: the positions of U.S. presidential candidates on NMD differ considerably. Last but not least, the costs of the project are known to be in the billions of dollars, but both the military value and technical reliability of the system are still in question.

The ABM Treaty problem is heating up at a moment when the entire structure of arms control is being challenged. Last fall, the U.S. Senate voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, drawing widespread censure around the world. Meanwhile, the Russian Parliament has failed to ratify the START II Treaty, blocking the process of further strategic arms reductions. In addition, because of the conflict in Chechnya, Moscow has admitted it exceeded limits on conventional arms set by the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, another bedrock arms control agreement.

Why does the ABM Treaty need to be amended? The 1972 Treaty is one of the main Russian-American pacts and was designed to prevent the United States and the Soviet Union from developing strategic missile defenses that could encourage nuclear first strikes. Its logic is as follows: If a country has an effective missile defense, it might be tempted to launch a large-scale, offensive first strike because it feels secure against possible retaliation. Thus, rather than being seen as protective, national missile defense systems were seen as destabilizing and were strictly limited by the ABM Treaty.

However, the end of the Cold War and the emergence of "rogue" states that possess improved missile capabilities (e.g., Iran, Iraq, North Korea) pose new threats. Advocates of NMD, whose origin may be traced to Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (known as "Star Wars"), say the United States - as well as Russia and other countries - could be vulnerable to attacks from rogue states or to accidental missile launches.

The initial phase of NMD, to be completed by 2005, involves building a new powerful radar in Alaska and deploying up to 100 interceptor missiles there. In negotiations with Russia, the United States argues that such a level of defense enables it to protect itself against a limited missile attack by several dozen missiles, but is insufficient to resist Russia's vast nuclear arsenal, thus preserving strategic balance and mutual nuclear deterrence between the U.S. and Russia.

But Russia's main concern is that the system might be further expanded, eventually nullifying the deterrent value of Russia's strategic forces, so Russia is strongly opposed to any modification of the ABM Treaty. From the U.S. side, Russia's agreement on modification of the ABM Treaty is sometimes seen as the price Russia pays for the continuation of the START process, as Russia is interested in reduction of its strategic nuclear forces for economic reasons.

The United States has also offered other trade-offs to Russia, such as sharing American radar data pertaining to missile defense and assistance in completing Russia's key radar site.

If no agreement is reached with Russia, one of the probable countermeasures would be deployment of land-based missiles with multiple warheads. This would not only invalidate decades of arms control efforts, but would also have a negative effect on Russia's tight budget and internal situation.

It is widely presumed that the Clinton Administration will go ahead, with or without Russia's consent. But apart from Russia's objections, implementation of NMD might elicit undesirable international reactions elsewhere. The U.S. and its European allies would have different levels of vulnerability, increasing Europeans' worries. On the other hand, the military effectiveness of NMD is far from proven. Tests have revealed so many uncertainties that key U.S. military experts now urge a slowdown on the project. NMD is often criticized for being irrelevant to major threats: Terrorists have plenty of other delivery systems, and can also use chemical and biological weapons rather than nuclear missiles.

At the same time, NMD's costs are considerable: According to the U.S. Department of Defense, research and development of missile defenses has cost $55 billion since 1984. If Washington approves the plan, the Pentagon would spend $10.5 billion on deployment over the next six years. In short, NMD is expected to have high costs and negative effects on the international situation and arms control regime, while its technical reliability and military effectiveness against major threats are uncertain.

But if the political gains associated with this expensive project are considered worth its negative side effects, NMD may well win presidential approval. Even if this month's missile interceptor test fails, and Clinton puts NMD aside for technical reasons, sooner or later the issue of NMD and the ABM Treaty will be back on the agenda. Since it will be more difficult to negotiate this issue with a Republican administration, Russia should use the leverage it has - e.g., ratification of START II - to seek a compromise and not to allow this issue to get out of control and ruin the arms control system.

Dr. Alexander Kaffka is head of the Information Center at the Institute for USA and Canada Studies. The views expressed here are his own. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.