July 20, 2001

July 20, 2001 | Backgrounder on Missile Defense

Moving Forward on Missile Defense

On July 15, 2001, the Pentagon successfully intercepted a long-range ballistic missile warhead during the fourth test of its land-based missile defense system.1 This provides undeniable evidence that a defense against the present and growing threat of ballistic missiles is technologically possible. According to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the test was designed to "demonstrate that ballistic missile defense is no longer a problem of invention, but rather a challenge of engineering."2

In recent weeks, details of President George W. Bush's plans for developing a ballistic missile defense have begun to emerge.3 While the plan leaves some questions unanswered, it is an important step in the right direction. Specifically, the President should be commended for:

  • Proposing a layered missile defense system. The President has been adamant about building a layered ballistic missile defense system. Even though the specific architecture of the system has not yet been defined, the Secretary of Defense has ordered that the system be a single, integrated system. It will not differentiate between theater and national missile defense. It will have a layered structure that will employ several integrated systems with the capacity to intercept ballistic missiles throughout their trajectories. The Bush plan will employ complementary sensors and interceptors to engage threats in the boost, mid-course, and terminal phases of flight. These capabilities will be incorporated as they are developed.

    A layered system is necessary because it provides an opportunity to shoot at the attacking missile multiple times after it is launched. This capacity is central to the effectiveness of any missile defense, given the complexity, diversity, and geographic proximity of potential threats.

  • Developing a realistic testing regime. Effective missile defense will depend largely on a robust and realistic testing regime. New technologies require extensive testing, with the expectation that some tests will be successful while others will not. Tragically, the Clinton Administration severely inhibited the technological progress of missile defense because it linked investment in the program to a few high-stakes tests.

    By contrast, President Bush is attempting to make up for lost time by instituting an accelerated and realistic testing regime. He will test existing technologies but also will include new technologies as well as Strategic Defense Initiative-era technologies in an extensive process of development and testing. The new testing regime will be part of an aggressive effort to evaluate and develop technologies for the integration of land-, sea-, air-, and space-based platforms. The new testing approach will include a greater number of tests and involve more realistic scenarios, including addressing countermeasures.4

  • Providing adequate funding. The Clinton Administration gave lip service to the importance of protecting America from a ballistic missile attack but also allowed the nation's missile defense programs to atrophy due to underfunding and mismanagement. The Bush Administration came into office with a promise to the American people that it would build an effective defense against ballistic missiles. It has now proposed a spending plan that will make this possible. The plan includes an increase of approximately $3.5 billion in funding for a ballistic missile defense, bringing total funding to approximately $8.3 billion.5 This is adequate for the first year of robust research, development, and testing of missile defense options, but it should be anticipated that an increase of up to $10 billion may become necessary in the near future.


President Bush's plan for developing an effective ballistic missile defense is an important first step, but it should be followed by additional steps. To provide for the rapid deployment of a ballistic missile defense, the Bush Administration should:

  • Emphasize near-term deployment. The Administration has appeared hesitant to stress the importance of deploying the system as soon as possible and, instead, has focused only on the testing and development aspects of the plan. For example, Secretary Rumsfeld recently stated that "what we're trying to do is research and development and testing--not deployment yet, but testing."6

    While it is true that testing must precede deployment, it should be clear that the ultimate purpose of testing is to facilitate deployment. Even the hint of hesitation regarding deployment can stifle progress by emboldening the President's critics who oppose deployment. In addition, the National Missile Defense Act of 1999 requires deployment as soon as technologically possible. Secretary Rumsfeld is right to focus on the need for robust testing, but there should be no doubt that the threat is imminent enough to warrant deployment as soon as possible.

  • Insist on full funding for the missile defense proposal. Congressional critics of missile defense have already signaled that they may attempt to obstruct the President's plan by voting against the requested $3.5 billion increase in funding. At a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Senator Max Cleland (D-GA) argued that that he could not support the increase for missile defense because the money is needed for other required items.7

    In fact, however, while the armed forces may have an array of needs, the proposed increase for missile defense is minimal in the context of the overall defense budget and would have little effect, if any, on the huge modernization investment that the armed forces currently require. According to Secretary Rumsfeld, "The Defense Department currently is receiving something less than 3 percent [of America's gross domestic product]" and that "the missile defense budget is, in total, less than 2.5 percent" of that limited amount.8 Although the critics of missile defense portray the program as a budget buster, its funding in reality is only a small percentage of what the United States spends on defense.

    Critics may also claim that missile defense money would be better spent funding the President's military transformation initiatives.9 The fact is that the $3.5 billion increase requested by the President is a pittance in comparison to what is necessary to fund transformation, and the addition or subtraction of those funds from the overall effort would have little impact.

    The more important point is that missile defense should be at the center of the President's transformation plan. The goal of military transformation is to utilize new technologies and scientific breakthroughs to achieve revolutionary military capabilities that America needs to address the many new and unanticipated threats that are now emerging throughout the world. This is the purpose that would be served by the development of an effective missile defense system.

    The missile defense initiative is an ambitious, technologically advanced program that has the potential to create capabilities that will be vital to America's future military operations in a dangerous and unpredictable world. While the President's military transformation initiative merits greater funding, missile defense should be viewed as an integral part of that project, not something separate from it. The President should insist that his missile defense budget be fully funded.

  • Clarify its position on the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz readily admits that the Administration's missile defense activities will "bump up against" the ABM Treaty in a matter of "months rather than in years" and declares that the Administration is prepared to "move beyond" the treaty.10 Yet he has also stated that "this Administration does not intend to violate the ABM Treaty."11 Is it possible to move beyond the treaty without violating it?

    In fact, there are several solutions to this seeming contradiction. The United States could "move beyond" the ABM Treaty by announcing a six-month period of withdrawal, which is legally permitted by the Treaty. Alternatively, it could argue that since the only other party to the treaty, the Soviet Union, no longer exists, the treaty is null and void. There is also the possibility that the United States could reach a formal agreement with Russia that supersedes the treaty (for example, one that would replace the old treaty with a new one).

    Whether Russia agrees or does not agree to engage in a new treaty, the United States has the right to declare the termination of its participation in the ABM Treaty after a six-month period should it determine, for example, that a critical test of its missile defense system would be unacceptably constrained by the treaty. Once notice is given, the United States would be legally free to proceed with the deployment of a missile defense system, regardless of whether the Russians agree.


There is, however, a further ambiguity in the Administration's statements that demands clarification. Secretary Rumsfeld has said that

If we found there was no way to reach a truly mutual agreement [with the Russians], you would have to then say, "Well, we do need to have missile defense, we do need to go forward, and therefore we need to give the six-month notification." Is that going to happen? No, I think we're going to find a way to have some mutual understanding.12

By the same token, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz states that he hopes to have obtained Russian understanding before any action is taken to exceed the limits of the ABM Treaty. Yet he adds that, if such an understanding cannot be reached, the United States has two choices: either to withdraw unilaterally from the treaty or to "allow an obsolete [treaty to] prevent us from doing everything we can to defend America...."13

Neither Rumsfeld nor Wolfowitz states unequivocally that the United States will withdraw from the treaty if the Russians refuse to accept America's definition of a new understanding on missile defense, but they strongly suggest that it would. Rumsfeld seems to be suggesting that the United States will proceed with deployment regardless of what the Russians do, because he states clearly that "we do need to go forward." At the same time, however, he says that he expects the Russians will go along with U.S. plans. In other words, he is not suggesting that the Russians will prevent the U.S. from testing or deployment; he is merely being optimistic that the Russians will acquiesce to U.S. plans.

Wolfowitz likewise indicates that deployment would proceed with or without Russian agreement. He calls the ABM Treaty "obsolete" and has elsewhere made it clear that the United States needs to "move beyond" the treaty.

Ambiguity about when the ABM Treaty would be abrogated or superseded is an understandable diplomatic strategy, but it can lead to misunderstanding, particularly when coupled with statements from the State Department about the need for a new treaty with the Russians.14 Such ambiguity, for example, could lead the Russians, U.S. allies, and Congress to believe that Russian agreement would somehow make it possible for the United States to proceed with deployment in a manner consistent with the ABM Treaty. Yet this is impossible: There is simply no way the United States can defend itself effectively under the restrictions of the ABM Treaty, regardless of whether or not the Russians agree.

The issue is not merely theoretical; it raises the critical, practical issue of how missile defense testing will proceed during the time the United States is talking with the Russians. If the Administration believes that an agreement with the Russians is necessary for any missile defense tests outlawed by the treaty to take place, it is implicitly giving the Russians veto power over the pace and substance of the U.S. testing regime--not to mention the decision to deploy the system. If, on the other hand, the Administration is merely trying to obtain Russian acquiescence to its plan before a test "bumps up" against the ABM Treaty, Russia has no presumed veto power and the missile defense program can proceed as fast as the technology will allow. One hopes that the Administration is choosing the latter course.

There can be no doubt that there is willful diplomatic ambiguity in the Administration's position. The Administration is clearly trying to walk a diplomatic and political tightrope with respect to the ABM Treaty, but it should take care that ambiguity does not give the wrong impression that somehow the ABM Treaty will be saved if the Russians agree to some new understanding with the United States.

Sadly, ambiguity only emboldens opponents of missile defense with the belief that redoubling their efforts will somehow avoid a day of reckoning regarding the ABM Treaty and deployment. Ambiguity signals weakness. The Administration must never be ambiguous about what it is asking the Russians to accept. The Administration is not merely seeking a new strategic framework to guide the United States and Russia into a "new era of deterrence." It is specifically demanding the right to build, test, and deploy a missile defense system that will become more effective as technologies improve and as it achieves new capacities.

Both the United States and Russia know that, at some point, if America is ever to employ an effective defense against enemy missiles, they must "cross the Rubicon" regarding the ABM Treaty. There may be political and diplomatic value in avoiding hard-ball tactics with the Russians and others regarding this issue, but there is absolutely no value in letting ambiguity cloud the fact that at some point very soon the United States will have to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. On this point there must be absolute certainty and clarity.


The President should be commended for advancing missile defense as far as he has in recent months. This is especially true of his efforts to lay the intellectual groundwork for moving beyond the ABM Treaty.

However, his missile defense plan is reaching the critical point at which a wrong decision could derail the entire program. The President should make it very clear that the imminent threat of a missile attack necessitates a defensive deployment as soon as possible and that this requires that the United States notify Russia that it will exercise its legal right to withdraw from the ABM Treaty.

Jack Spencer is Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

1. U.S. Department of Defense, "Missile Intercept Test Successful," news release No. 313-01, July 15, 2001.

2. Rowan Scarborough, "Rumsfeld Is Elated over Anti-Missile Test, Says the Technology Is `Within Our Grasp'," The Washington Times, July 17, 2001, p. A4.

3. Hearing, The Fiscal Year 2002 Defense Budge for Ballistic Missile Defense Programs, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, July 12, 2001, and U.S. Department of Defense, news transcript, "Background Interview on Missile Defense," July 11, 2001, at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jul2001/t07122001_t711sdob.html.

4. Robert Burns, "Rumsfeld: More Missile Tests to Come," Associated Press, July 16, 2001.

5. Testimony before House Appropriations Committee, "Fiscal Year 2002 Defense Budget Request," June 28, 2001, at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/2001/s20010716-secdef2.html.

6. U.S. Department of Defense, news transcript, "Secretary Rumsfeld Answers Questions at Frontiers of Freedom Conference," July 12, 2001, at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jul2001/t07142001_t0712sd.html.

7. Hearing, The Fiscal Year 2002 Defense Budget for Ballistic Missile Defense Programs.

8. Testimony before House Appropriations Committee, "Fiscal Year 2002 Defense Budget Request."

9. Vernon Leob, "Hill Is Asked to Add 7% to Defense Budget," The Washington Post, June 29, 2001, A20.

10. Hearing, The Fiscal Year 2002 Defense Budge for Ballistic Missile Defense Programs.

11. Ibid.

12. Vernon Loeb, "Senate Democrats Blast Bush's Missile Defense Plan," The Washington Post, July 13, 2001, p. A5.

13. Hearing, The Fiscal Year 2002 Defense Budge for Ballistic Missile Defense Programs.

14. Steven Mufson and Alan Sipress, "Powell Says U.S. Will Seek Arms Accord with Russia," The Washington Post, July 14, 2001, p. A1.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity