The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #1136

September 8, 1997

September 8, 1997 | Backgrounder on

BG1136:  Alaska's Missile Defense Appeal:  A Model ForOther States

Common sense would dictate that any national missile defense (NMD) system developed for the United States should be designed to protect all U.S. territory against missile attack. The Clinton Administration, however, has proposed an NMD development and deployment plan that most likely will leave a large portion of the United States vulnerable to missile strikes.

The Administration's proposed NMD system is not likely to provide full coverage to U.S. territory because it is being designed in a way that conforms to the restrictions of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Last May, therefore, legislators in Alaska-alarmed at the prospect of being left vulnerable-adopted a resolution asking the federal government to provide Alaska with protection against such attacks on an equal basis with all other states.1

Legislators from Florida, Arkansas, or Utah might be tempted to assume that only Alaska and Hawaii, being geographically isolated from the contiguous 48 states, would be outside the protective umbrella of the Clinton NMD system. Such an assumption, in most cases, would be wrong. Because of the requirements of the ABM Treaty, many other states also are likely to be left vulnerable. As a result, other state legislatures should be prepared to follow Alaska's lead and adopt a similar resolution to help make sure that their states will be protected on an equal basis with all other states. While such resolutions do not have legal force over the federal government, they do carry much weight in reminding distant Washington policymakers of their responsibilities to the states. The Alaska resolution, which could serve as a model, demands that the federal government:

Provide protection against missile attack to all the people of the United States on an equal basis.

Include Alaska and Hawaii, and not just the 48 contiguous states, in all future assessments of the threat posed to the United States from missile attack.

Take the necessary steps-including deployment of a missile defense system-to ensure that Alaska is protected against the threats posed by foreign aggressors.

Recognize that the security of Alaska takes precedence over any international treaty or obligation.

Hold public hearings in Alaska to help the people of that state appreciate the extent of their vulnerability.


The NMD development and deployment plan now being implemented by the Clinton Administration includes a three-year development program that would allow a deployment decision by the year 2000 or sometime thereafter. A missile defense system could be deployed three years after this decision is made. Because of these three-year intervals, the Clinton proposal is frequently referred to as the "three-plus-three" plan. Significantly, however, the plan contains no explicit commitment to deploy an NMD system. Moreover, any system that is deployed almost certainly will leave vast portions of U.S. territory unprotected against missile strikes because of the Administration's determination to observe the requirements of the ABM Treaty, which imposes severe restrictions on what sort of NMD system the United States may develop and deploy.

The NMD system envisioned by the Clinton Administration is ground-based-the only kind allowed by the ABM Treaty. It would include up to 100 interceptors and would likely be located at Grand Forks, North Dakota, which the United States designated under the treaty and a 1974 protocol as its single ABM deployment site. The question that remains for Alaska, Hawaii, and a potential host of other states is whether such a system will be able to protect their territory. The answer provided by the Clinton Administration plan is that they will not be protected because the ABM Treaty specifically bars the deployment of an NMD system capable of providing coverage to all of the territory of the United States.

Alaska's understandable concern
The Alaska legislature's concern about Alaska's ongoing vulnerability to missile attack was prompted by a November 1995 intelligence community report on the missile threat that excluded threats to Alaska and Hawaii from consideration. The intelligence community prepared this report, known as a national intelligence estimate (NIE), at the behest of the Clinton Administration.2 The NIE determined that the U.S. would not face a missile threat from any Third World state for at least 15 years. Excluding Alaska and Hawaii from the estimate served to bypass an earlier assessment by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch that territories in these two states could be subject to attack by a North Korean missile, the Taepo Dong 2, by the end of this decade.3

The Clinton Administration's attempts to downplay the missile threat and to uphold the ABM Treaty convinced Alaska's legislators that it had set out on a path that would leave Alaskan territory vulnerable to the Taepo Dong 2. The first problem has to do with timing. Under the Administration's deployment plan, even if it provided coverage to Alaska, the United States would not be able to deploy an NMD system until after the estimated North Korean threat to Alaska materialized. But the question of timing is actually the less important of the problems posed by the Administration's NMD plan: The lack of coverage of the fully deployed system should be of even greater concern. Limits on the coverage of the deployed NMD system, as required by the ABM Treaty, will result in permanent vulnerability.


With the Clinton Administration embarked on its three-plus-three plan, political leaders in Alaska and other states still need to be concerned that it is prepared to leave their territories permanently vulnerable to missile strikes. This concern arises even as the Administration prepares to provide protection to other portions of U.S. territory. The reason for this unwise approach can be found in the Administration's infatuation with the ABM Treaty. Article I of the ABM Treaty commits the U.S. "not to deploy ABM systems for a defense of the territory of its country and not to provide a base for such a defense, and not to deploy ABM systems for defense of an individual region except as provided for in Article III of this Treaty."

Article III of the ABM Treaty, as amended by a 1974 protocol, allows the deployment of a single site of up to 100 ground-based interceptors at the national capital area or a field of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Under the treaty, the United States designated its site as the ICBM field in North Dakota. The United States constructed such a system in the 1970s, but mothballed it shortly after it became operational.

The Clinton Administration's three-plus-three plan is designed to deploy a more technologically advanced system at the North Dakota site, but under the requirements of Article I, this system's defensive coverage cannot extend beyond the region where the ICBMs are deployed. As a result, the Administration's requirement that the deployment be "treaty compliant" means that virtually all U.S. territory outside the northern portions of the Midwest will remain vulnerable to missile attack under the three-plus-three plan.

The Clinton Administration, moreover, continues to mislead the American people about its plans. The Administration has directed the program manager of the NMD system, Brigadier General Joseph Cosumano, to design a ground-based system that, despite the restrictions of the ABM Treaty, can meet the demanding technological task of providing protection to all 50 states. General Cosumano has acknowledged, however, that the Clinton Administration has made no commitment to him that it will relax the strictures of Article I and allow the deployment of a system capable of protecting all U.S. territory.4 Thus, the Administration is instructing the military to design an NMD system that its own policy toward the ABM Treaty will bar it from deploying. The only alternatives will be (1) to deploy a system that leaves the territories of the vast majority of states vulnerable to missile strikes or (2) to deploy no NMD system at all.

Better options for NMD foreclosed
The Administration's adherence to the ABM Treaty also requires the rejection of development and deployment options that are less risky technically and could provide full coverage to the territories of all 50 states against small-scale missile strikes. One such option is to upgrade the Navy's Theater-Wide ("Upper Tier") system for countering shorter-range missiles that pose a threat to U.S. allies and forces in the field to give it the capability to provide a defense of U.S. territory against long-range missiles. Since the interceptors would be deployed on AEGIS cruisers that patrol the world's oceans, this system would protect against missiles launched from North Korea, North Africa, and the Middle East. The system could even be used to defend against small-scale launches aimed at the Midwest if interceptors were deployed on a barge in the Great Lakes or on launching pads in North Dakota.5

The Clinton Administration is all but certain to oppose the Upper Tier option, which would cost only about $3 billion (compared to some $10 billion for the Administration's NMD plan), on the grounds that the system is incompatible with Article I, Article V, and Article VI of the ABM Treaty. Article I prohibits the deployment of a missile defense system that is capable of defending either the entire territory of the U.S. or any region of the country outside the ICBM field in the Midwest. Article V prohibits the development, testing, and deployment of a sea-based ABM system. Article VI prohibits giving systems for defending against shorter-range missiles, like the Navy Upper Tier system, the ability to counter the long-range missiles that threaten U.S. territory.


Recognizing that the ABM Treaty poses an insurmountable obstacle to providing adequate missile protection for Alaska, the state's legislators passed a resolution reminding the federal government of its obligation to protect all 50 states. The resolution states explicitly that Alaska's safety and security take priority over any international treaty or obligation. Further, it expresses the view that the President should take whatever action is required to ensure that Alaska is defended against limited missile attack. By implication, this provision asks the federal government to modify or jettison the ABM Treaty.

Given the present situation, other state legislatures would be well-advised to use Alaska's resolution as a model for similar resolutions demanding that the federal government provide their states with protection against missile attack. As long as the ABM Treaty obstacle remains, there is little prospect that the federal government will field an effective NMD system that provides protection to all U.S. territory.



Introduced: 5/2/97
Referred: Judiciary


Relating to the defense of Alaska from offensive nuclear attack.


WHEREAS Alaska is the 49th state to enter the federal union of the United States of America and is entitled to all of the rights, privileges, and obligations that the union affords and requires; and

WHEREAS Alaska possesses natural resources, including energy, mineral, and human resources, vital to the prosperity and national security of the United States; and

WHEREAS the people of Alaska are conscious of the state's remote northern location and proximity to Northeast Asia and the Eurasian land mass, and of how that unique location places the state in a more vulnerable position than other states with regard to missiles that could be launched in Asia and Europe; and

WHEREAS the people of Alaska recognize the changing nature of the international political structure and the evolution and proliferation of missile delivery systems and weapons of mass destruction as foreign states seek the military means to deter the power of the United States in international affairs; and

WHEREAS there is a growing threat to Alaska by potential aggressors in these nations and in rogue nations that are seeking nuclear weapons capability and that have sponsored international terrorism; and

WHEREAS a National Intelligence Estimate to assess missile threats to the United States left Alaska and Hawaii out of the assessment and estimate; and

WHEREAS one of the primary reasons for joining the Union of the United States of America was to gain security for the people of Alaska and for the common regulation of foreign affairs on the basis of an equitable membership in the United States federation; and

WHEREAS the United States plans to field a national missile defense, perhaps as early as 2003; this national missile defense plan will provide only a fragile defense for Alaska, the state most likely to be threatened by new missile powers that are emerging in Northeast Asia;

BE IT RESOLVED that the Alaska Legislature respectfully requires the President of the United States to take all actions necessary, within the considerable limits of the resources of the United States, to protect on an equal basis all peoples and resources of this great Union from threat of missile attack regardless of the physical location of the member state; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED that the Alaska State Legislature respectfully requests that Alaska be included in every National Intelligence Estimate conducted by the United States joint intelligence agencies; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED that the Alaska State Legislature respectfully requests the President of the United States to include Alaska and Hawaii, not just the contiguous 48 states, in every National Intelligence Estimate of missile threat to the United States; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED that the Alaska State Legislature urges the United States government to take necessary measures to ensure that Alaska is protected against foreseeable threats, nuclear and otherwise, posed by foreign aggressors, including deployment of a ballistic missile defense system to protect Alaska; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED that the Alaska State Legislature conveys to the President of the United States expectations that Alaska's safety and security take priority over any international treaty or obligation and that the President take whatever action is necessary to ensure that Alaska can be defended against limited missile attacks with the same degree of assurance as that provided to all other states; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED that the Alaska State Legislature respectfully requests that the appropriate Congressional committees hold hearings in Alaska that include defense experts and administration officials to help Alaskans understand their risks, their level of security, and Alaska's vulnerability.

COPIES of this resolution shall be sent to the Honorable Bill Clinton, President of the United States; the Honorable Al Gore, Jr., Vice President of the United States and President of the U.S. Senate; the Honorable Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; the Honorable Ted Stevens, Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations; the Honorable Bob Livingston, Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations; the Honorable Strom Thurmond, Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services; the Honorable Floyd Spence, Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on National Security; and to the Honorable Frank Murkowski, U.S. Senator, and the Honorable Don Young, U.S. Representative, members of the Alaska delegation in Congress.


1 Senate Joint Resolution 30, "Defense of Alaska from Nuclear Attack." The Alaska Senate adopted the resolution on May 6, while the Alaska House adopted it on May 11.

2 For a summary version of the NIE, called the "President's Summary," see "Do We Need a Missile Defense System?" The Washington Times, May 14, 1996, p. A15. The intelligence community includes the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the intelligence arms of the military services, and other smaller agencies.

3 Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, Military Implications of the Chemical Weapons Convention (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994), p. 81.

4 Brigadier General Joseph Cosumano, "Ballistic Missile Defense: Its Role in Counter-Proliferation, Arms Control and Deterrence," remarks before Fifth Annual Congressional National Security Policy Breakfast Seminar, sponsored by National Defense University Foundation and American Defense Preparedness Association, Washington, D.C., May 16, 1997.

5 For a detailed description of the "Upper Tier" option, see Missile Defense Study Team, Defending America: A Near- and Long-Term Plan to Deploy Missile Defenses (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1995).

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy