The President's Important Choice on Missile Defense

Report Defense

The President's Important Choice on Missile Defense

March 31, 2000 18 min read
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

President Bill Clinton has promised to make a decision later this year on the type of ballistic missile defense system that America will have. The threat of attack grows significantly with each passing month, and the U.S. military still is unable to protect Americans from ballistic missiles.1

This fact led Members of Congress to pass and the President to sign the National Missile Defense Act of 1999 (P.L. 106-38), which mandates that the United States deploy a missile defense system to protect U.S. territory "as soon as is technologically possible." A decision on the type of architecture will propel testing and assure Americans that a missile defense system will be deployed.

The President, however, is unwisely being pressured to defer his decision or tie it to an arms control deal with Russia.2 Some oppose making a decision because they claim that the technology is not ready.3 Others do not like the President's proposed architecture and fear that a decision will lock the United States into a bad plan. The first objection is simply mistaken; the technology is ready. The second, though more compelling, is nonetheless misguided. Deferring a decision on the type of system will only encourage those who want no missile defense system at all.

The President's decision on architecture is important. It will reaffirm that a decision to deploy a missile defense system has been made and that the technology is available to do so. Nothing in the President's choice of architecture, however, would prevent future administrations from changing or improving the system.

More important, the President's decision will shatter the illusion that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which expired with the Soviet Union in 1991, still prohibits the United States from fielding a missile defense system. The decision also will derail efforts by some opponents of missile defense to preserve that treaty. A decision not to deploy will, in short, do more harm than good, and will merely push back the day when Americans can be protected from missile attack.


On July 23, 1999, President Clinton told America that he would make a decision on deploying a missile defense system in 2000. Although opponents of missile defense and others are pressuring the President to delay his decision, this would be a mistake. Deferring the decision would only allow the missile threat to the United States to go unaddressed while that threat grows and the technology to confront it is available.

The President should honor his promise to make a decision for the following reasons:

  1. It would give technical substance to the decision to deploy, which already has been made in principle.

Although some opponents of missile defense suggest that the President has yet to decide whether or not to deploy a national missile defense system, this is not the case. That decision was made on July 22, 1999, when President Clinton signed the National Missile Defense Act. Now, since they do not have the votes in Congress to repeal that act, these opponents hope to convince the President to delay his decision, which would effectively gut the act.

The President has contributed to the confusion on this issue by claiming that the National Missile Defense Act does not constitute the decision to deploy.4 However, the decision to deploy a national missile defense system, albeit of unspecified design, is now law.

The only decision the President must now make is about what kind of system design, or architecture, to deploy. His decision on the architecture will bring executive branch activities into compliance with the law and enable design and testing to move forward.

  1. It would demonstrate that the technology is available for fielding a missile defense.

The National Missile Defense Act requires the United States to provide an effective defense as soon as "technologically possible." Some critics maintain that the technology for missile defense is not available.5 In effect, they are saying to Americans that Washington has no choice but to leave them vulnerable to missile attack.

This makes little sense to those who witnessed how quickly America put a man on the moon after President John Kennedy issued that challenge. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that President Clinton would choose to deploy a system that lacked feasibility. Thus, his decision on the type of system to be deployed--be it land-based, sea-based, space-based, or a combination of all three--will effectively silence the arguments on feasibility.

Such arguments are without merit. Missile defense technology has been tested under the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and more recently under the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) program. The technology is based on intercepting ballistic missiles with kinetic energy interceptors, which destroy incoming missiles by ramming them. This kind of interceptor has performed successful intercept tests on many occasions, including in tests of the Patriot PAC-3, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and--as recently as last fall--the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) for countering long-range missiles.6

Some critics assert that more successful tests are necessary to demonstrate a system's feasibility. They interpret the National Missile Defense Act's "as soon as is technologically possible" language to mean that such a defense is not technologically possible today.7 This is not the case. Moreover, this provision was written into the act specifically to insure that deployment would take place at the earliest possible opportunity, not to imply any lack of technological feasibility.

Yet some supporters of missile defense have adopted this faulty line of reasoning.8 They assert that the GBI intercept test scheduled for later this year must be successful to generate the level of confidence that is needed to field a defense system. Yet even the development of the GBI system has advanced to the point that, absent a test later this year, confidence in the technology is justified. Past testing and development efforts have proven that the technology works in principle.9

One of the objectives of testing is to obtain an understanding of the capabilities of the technology as designed. Even if the impending intercept test fails to destroy the target, the knowledge obtained from that test will advance the program significantly. Unsuccessful intercept tests can help developers adjust designs as well as timetables for fielding a system, just as successful tests can.

  1. It will not prevent future administrations from changing or improving the system.

Among the concerns of the likely Republican nominee for President, Texas Governor George W. Bush, is that President Clinton's selection of an architecture could limit future administrations from changing the system to improve it.10 Governor Bush, who has expressed support for fielding a missile defense system,11 and missile defense proponents like him are concerned that if the President selects only ground-based interceptors, future Presidents would be limited in their ability to field options that use sea-based and space-based interceptors.

Indeed, President Clinton could select an architecture based only on ground-based interceptors. His choice, however, will not be set in stone. The National Missile Defense Act requires that a system be deployed as soon as technologically possible; and evidence suggests that the sea-based option, with streamlined management, could be deployed sooner than a ground-based option could.12 The next President would be well within the requirements of the law to decide next year that the sea-based option should replace the ground-based option, if that is President Clinton's choice, or that the architecture should be expanded to include land-based, sea-based, and space-based interceptors.

In short, an architecture decision by the current President is an executive decision that could be altered by a future President. His decision is not law. In fact, his architecture decision will maintain the momentum for deployment and ease the decisionmaking path to fielding additional systems down the road. If deploying a limited missile defense is a good idea, then deploying a more capable missile defense system at a later time is a better idea.

  1. It would shatter the illusion that the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty should stand in the way of missile defense.

The 1972 ABM Treaty with the former Soviet Union barred the United States from deploying a missile defense system for the protection of its national territory. The treaty is no longer valid because the Soviet Union has ceased to exist and the Senate has yet to receive, much less approve, a new treaty to replace it.13 The Clinton Administration unilaterally observes the 1972 treaty's restrictions on the design and testing of missile defense systems, despite the fact that the Soviet Union violated the treaty and Russia today is not a party to it.

The National Missile Defense Act shattered the illusion that the ABM Treaty was still valid by directing the U.S. military to deploy a missile defense system for the protection of U.S. territory, an action that would be prohibited under Article I of the 1972 treaty. Congress, when it passed the act by an overwhelming margin, was fully cognizant of the fact that U.S. obligations under the ABM Treaty had expired with the Soviet Union. An architecture decision this year will end any reason for the United States to adhere to the restraints that this treaty imposed on testing and development, thereby hindering progress on missile defense.

In addition, the Administration's current plan to deploy a missile defense system in Alaska is inconsistent with Article III of the treaty. As amended by a 1974 protocol, Article III allows the deployment of long-range missile defenses for regional defense in only one of two locations: the Washington, D.C., area or a region containing a field of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The United States designated Grand Forks, North Dakota, as this site. Alaska, therefore, would be prohibited as a site for a long-range missile defense system under Article III if the treaty were still in force.

Finally, an architecture decision by the President will set in motion a series of activities that also would be inconsistent with the terms of the ABM Treaty. Selecting a ground-based architecture for the defense of U.S. territory, wherever it is located, means that construction activities should begin in spring 2001. Thus, the President's decision on architecture will remove the most important obstacle to the deployment of an effective missile defense for the United States.

  1. It would derail Administration efforts to preserve the ABM Treaty by signing a new deal with Russia.

Some proponents of missile defense fear that the Administration's ongoing discussions with Russia on arms control could be used as a means to draft a new agreement with Moscow that would alter the ABM Treaty to allow the deployment of the system the President chooses.14 This is a legitimate fear, since such an agreement would hobble the U.S. missile defense effort. The treaty's restrictions would continue to impose limits on the capabilities of the defense architecture that are so severe that the system developed would not justify the expense.

Some supporters of missile defense press for deferring the architecture decision in order to block the negotiations with Russia. They believe the President could not justify the adoption of a treaty that codifies an architecture decision he has yet to make. But the President is likely to pursue an agreement with Russia regardless of whether it involves the architecture decision. He has framed the discussions with Russia in terms of amending the ABM Treaty, even though selecting an architecture, in and of itself, is inconsistent with the treaty's core provision to prohibit missile defense.

The Russian government has stated its opposition to the Administration's plans to amend the treaty to allow a ground-based system in Alaska, because Russia would view it as effectively abrogating the terms of the treaty, which it maintains is still in force.15 The President's decision on architecture would make it clear that the United States will deploy a national missile defense without regard to the provisions of the ABM Treaty.


Because of the Senate's unique constitutional role in advising and consenting to all treaties, Senate leaders should state clearly that they will oppose any agreement with any country that limits the opportunity and options of the United States to field a national missile defense system. Moreover, Senators should take every opportunity to emphasize to the American people that the President's diplomatic efforts with Russia to amend the old ABM Treaty pose a threat to U.S. security and may undermine the Senate's role in the process.

The Administration has acknowledged that Russia is not currently a party to the ABM Treaty,16 which means that Russia has no legal standing to participate in formal negotiations to amend that treaty. Moreover, Russia is unable to fulfill the terms of the treaty as written and amended. For these reasons, the Administration's ongoing negotiations with Russia on this matter are no more than informal discussions.17

The Senate should insist that, before Russia is allowed to participate in formal negotiations to amend the treaty in a substantive way, the Administration must submit an agreement with Russia to make it a treaty partner.18 This agreement would then be subject to the Senate's review.19

Indeed, Administration officials signed an agreement in 1997 that would bring Russia and three other former Soviet states into the ABM Treaty regime.20 While he is legally bound to submit this agreement to the Senate, the President has yet to do so. In the interim, the President cannot take steps to implement the terms of this agreement without obtaining the Senate's approval.

Senate leaders can take several steps to ensure that the Administration honors the letter of the law and moves to deploy a missile defense system "as soon as is technologically possible." Specifically, the Senate should:

  1. Make clear that it will not consider any deal with Russia until the question of legality is resolved. Formal negotiations with Russia to amend the ABM Treaty are improper, since Russia is not a party to that treaty, and illegal, since the 1997 agreement with Russia cannot be implemented without the Senate's consent. The Administration must either submit the agreements it has made with Russia to the Senate or withdraw them. The Senate should appeal to the President to honor the commitment he made in May 1997 to submit the 1997 agreements to the Senate.21

  2. Remind the Administration that the ABM Treaty requires that amendments must be negotiated in the treaty's implementing body, the Standing Consultative Commission. Such amendments could be negotiated only if Russia were made a party to the treaty.

  3. State clearly that it is not opposed to negotiations with Russia on missile defense as long as they are conducted outside the legal framework of the defunct ABM Treaty. The Senate should encourage the President to revive the Defense and Space Talks as an appropriate forum for such negotiations. The Defense and Space Talks focused on achieving a cooperative transition formula with Russia for the deployment of missile defenses in the absence of ABM Treaty restrictions. President Clinton broke off these talks in 1993.


President Clinton, in signing the National Missile Defense Act last year, acknowledged that protecting U.S. territory and U.S. citizens against missile attack is imperative. His selection of a missile defense architecture will propel that mandate to reality. Any reason that the President finds to back away from his earlier promise to decide the architecture later this year effectively keeps Americans vulnerable to attack.

Politically, the President is concerned that delaying the architecture decision will allow proponents of missile defense to brand him (and his Administration) as "soft on defense." Polling data indicate that Americans could indeed come to that conclusion.22 Proponents of missile defense should avoid offering proposals that might enable the President to retreat from his decision on architecture. Suggesting that he delay the decision, for example, could be used in the end as a rationale for abandoning missile defense altogether.

America must hold the President accountable for implementing the requirements of the National Missile Defense Act of 1999. The President's decision on the type of system to be deployed will assure the nation that Washington is serious about providing America with adequate defenses against ballistic missiles.

Baker Spring is a Research Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.



1. Several congressional committees have reported on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. See Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, Published Pursuant to Public Law 201, 104th Congress (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, July 15, 1998), and Report by the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China, pursuant to House Resolution 5, as amended, 106th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 25, 1999). See also Heritage Foundation Commission on Missile Defense, Defending America: A Plan to Meet the Urgent Missile Threat (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1999), and Jack Spencer, The Ballistic Missile Threat Handbook (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2000).

2. Opponents who urge the President to defer the decision include the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post and Frank von Hippel of Princeton University. See "A Slower Path to Missile Defense," The New York Times, January 21, 2000; "Some Sound Defense Advice," The Washington Post, February 18, 2000, p. A22; and Philipp C. Bleek and Frank N. von Hippel, "Missile Defense: A Dangerous Move," The Washington Post, December 12, 1999, p. B9. Proponents who have urged the President to defer his decision include Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. See Elizabeth Becker and Eric Schmitt, "Delay Sought in Decision on Missile Defense," The New York Times, January 20, 2000, and Henry Kissinger, "The Next President's First Obligation," The Washington Post, February 9, 2000.

3. Bleek and von Hippel, for example, define the President's decision in this way. See Bleek and von Hippel, "Missile Defense: A Dangerous Move."

4. The White House, "Statement by the President," July 23, 1999.

5. Editorial, "A Slower Path to Missile Defense," The New York Times, January 21, 2000.

6. Lieutenant General Ronald T. Kadish, USAF, statement before the Subcommittee on Military Research and Development and Subcommittee on Procurement, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, February 16, 2000.

7. Doug Shaw, "A Voice Against Abrogation," Nexus, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 53-54.

8. Senator Gordon Smith, for example, seems to accept this argument. See Becker and Schmitt, "Delay Sought in Decision on Missile Defense."

9. Kadish statement before House Armed Services Committee.

10. Governor Bush, when asked about the possibility of President Clinton deferring the missile defense decision, went so far as to state that he might praise the President for putting off his decision. See Jim Hoagland, "Bush Foreign Policy Taking Firmer Shape," The Houston Chronicle, December 22, 1999, p. A38.

11. See George W. Bush, "A Period of Consequences," speech given at The Citadel, September 23, 1999.

12. Heritage Foundation Commission on Missile Defense, Defending America, p. 47.

13. See David B. Rivkin, Jr., Lee A. Casey, and Darin Bartram, "The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the End of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: A Memorandum of Law," prepared for The Heritage Foundation by Hunton & Williams, Washington, D.C., June 15, 1998, and Douglas J. Feith and George Miron, "Memorandum of Law: Did the ABM Treaty of 1972 Remain in Force After the USSR Ceased to Exist in December 1991 and Did It Become a Treaty Between the United States and the Russian Federation?" prepared for the Center for Security Policy, Washington, D.C., January 22, 1999.

14. Kissinger, "The Next President's First Obligation."

15. Bradley Graham and Steven Mufson, "Groundwork Is Laid for Possible Summit," The Washington Post, February 19, 2000, p. A16.

16. The White House, "Report to Congress on the Memorandum of Understanding Relating to the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems of May 26, 1972," February 9, 1999.

17. U.S. Department of State, "Russia: START III Talks," AC Press Guidance, August 19, 1999.

18. An agreement with Russia "making it a party to the ABM Treaty" would in reality constitute an entirely new treaty.

19. William J. Clinton, in "To the Congress of the United States," a certification document submitted to Congress, May 15, 1997.

20. "Memorandum of Understanding Relating to the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems of May 26, 1972," September 26, 1997.

21. Clinton, "To the Congress of the United States."

22. According to a recent Zogby poll, Americans favor deploying a missile defense system over accommodating Russia on the future of the ABM Treaty by roughly two to one. See Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, "Sea-Based Missile Defense," Report No. 135, March 2, 2000.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy