Clinton's Failed Missile Defense Policy: A Legacy of MissedOpportunities

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Clinton's Failed Missile Defense Policy: A Legacy of MissedOpportunities

September 21, 2000 16 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 is wrong to defer initial construction of a national missile defense (NMD) system. He is needlessly prolonging the vulnerability of Americans to even one ballistic missile attack, whether launched intentionally or by accident. He has given the American people the impression that the threat is not as urgent and that missile defense is not as technologically feasible as both in fact are. Regrettably, the President's decision will interrupt and further delay the development and deployment of an effective missile defense system for America.1

This decision is another in a series of failures in presidential leadership, policy, and judgment. For example, even though the President has acknowledged that the missile threat continues to grow,2 he has consistently failed to take the necessary steps to address that threat. Moreover, by signing the National Missile Defense Act on July 22, 1999,3 President Clinton sealed America's commitment to field an NMD system "as soon as is technologically possible." This latest decision to delay therefore represents a failure of political will to defend the American people in spite of a clear mandate and a growing threat. In the end, his decision may have been a calculated gamble to allow arms control advocates in Congress and the next Administration to continue delaying the deployment of an NMD system well into the future.

When President Clinton announced on September 1, 2000,4 that he would delay construction, his decision was not due to any unexpected or unavoidable technological limitations in the program, though this is clearly the impression he conveyed in his speech at Georgetown University. In reality, the President and his Administration inherited an NMD program from the Bush Administration that enjoyed congressional support and--had it been allowed to progress--already would have provided Americans with several years of limited defense. The President chose to scuttle that program and leave Americans completely vulnerable to missile attack for an indefinite period of time.

Ultimately, the President's decision is the result of his own policy choices. He has chosen to limit research and development in missile defense systems, to restrict their testing, and to put arms control considerations ahead of deployment. He has vetoed an entire defense authorization bill because of a provision on missile defense. And he has ignored the requirements of the law regarding the deployment of an NMD system. The Administration's lengthy record of delay and missed opportunities belies any impression that the President would have chosen to move forward with construction were it not for technological limitations.5

A Legacy of delay and missed opportunities
When President Clinton took office in January 1993, the nation's missile defense program included an option to deploy an initial site of interceptors on the U.S. homeland by the late 1990s.6 The Bush plan to develop Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS), a product of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, enjoyed the support of a Democratic Congress. But President Clinton chose to dismantle that program. If he had simply left the GPALS program in place, Americans now would have a defense against at least limited missile attacks.

The scope of the Administration's hostility to deploying missile defenses is made clear by a long list of decisions that have continually delayed progress on developing and deploying a national missile defense system.7 The 14 most significant of these decisions are:

  1. The cancellation of the SDI program and the GPALS deployment plan. On May 13, 1993, at a Pentagon press briefing, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced that the Clinton Administration viewed the previous administration's missile defense plan as inappropriate for addressing the threat.8 A decision was made to cancel the missile defense program inherited from the Bush Administration and to focus instead on fielding defenses against shorter-range (theater) missiles.
  2. The adoption of a 1993 Bottom-Up Review recommendation to reduce NMD funding by 80 percent and make it a technology demonstration program. The Administration undertook a comprehensive Bottom-Up Review of defense policy in 1993 and released the findings later that year.9 It terminated NMD as an acquisitions program and relegated it to the status of technology demonstration program. Funding was drastically reduced from levels recommended by the Bush Administration for fiscal year (FY) 1995 through FY 1999.
  3. The decision by executive order to downgrade the NMD program and secure the preservation of a treaty limiting testing and deployment of missile defenses. Following the Bottom-Up Review, President Clinton issued an order accepting its recommendation to downgrade the NMD program.10 Even more damaging, his directive ordered the Administration to seek to preserve the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the Soviet Union by replacing the Soviet Union as treaty partner with states from the former U.S.S.R. The ABM Treaty prohibited the deployment of an NMD system and imposed severe restrictions on the development and testing of certain kinds of defenses. Multilateralizing the treaty to include more partners would make it all but impossible to ease the treaty restrictions by amendment in the future.
  4. The termination of the Defense and Space Talks with Russia, which were designed to foster cooperation on missile defense. Stanley Riveles, U.S. representative to the ABM Treaty implementing body, the Standing Consultative Commission (SCC), revealed in a June 1994 speech that the United States had withdrawn a number of Bush Administration proposals to cooperate with Russia in the area of missile defense.11 Those proposals had followed Russian President Boris Yeltsin's offer in January 1992 to work with Washington in fielding what he called a Global Protection System (GPS). The withdrawal of these proposals effectively terminated the Defense and Space Talks between the two countries. The unfortunate effect was to encourage Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense.
  5. The release of a joint statement with Russia on the importance of preserving the ABM Treaty, which limits testing and deployment of missile defenses. President Clinton's policy of encouraging Russia's opposition to missile defense was made clearer at a summit with Yeltsin in Washington in late September 1994. In their joint statement, the two presidents made clear that they "agreed on the fundamental importance of preserving the viability and integrity of the ABM Treaty."12 The statement ended Russia's offer to work with Washington on a GPS and reverted to the position of the Soviet Union prior to its dissolution to uphold the treaty that permanently bans the deployment of NMD.
  6. The acceptance of a 1995 intelligence estimate that mistakenly concluded the missile threat will not materialize for 10 to 15 years. A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released in November 1995 estimated that a missile attack on the United States would not occur for at least a decade.13 This estimate was later discredited by the July 15, 1998, findings of the Rumsfeld Commission, which said that rogue states could launch a ballistic missile within five years of the decision to deploy, and by North Korea's launch of a three-stage rocket over Japan on August 31, 1998.14
  7. The veto of the FY 1996 Defense Authorization bill that required the deployment of an NMD system. Congress passed a defense authorization bill (H.R. 1530) in 1995 that contained a provision requiring the deployment of an NMD system by 2003. President Clinton vetoed the bill in December 1995 on the grounds that there was no threat; that signing it would prematurely commit the United States to a particular type of missile defense technology; that it was inconsistent with the ABM Treaty; and that it would jeopardize offensive reductions of nuclear weapons under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.15 But these "reasons" were themselves the result of previous policy decisions by the Clinton Administration.
  8. The establishment of a missile defense program in 1996 that put off making a commitment to deploy until at least 2000. Following the President's veto of H.R. 1530, the Administration proposed a program to mollify congressional demands for deployment of an NMD system. Then Secretary of Defense William Perry declared on February 16, 1996, at a Pentagon press briefing that he was moving the NMD program from a "technology readiness program" to a "deployment readiness program."16 Specifically, over a period of three years (until 2000), the Defense Department would conduct further research and development of NMD technologies that support a decision to deploy, to result in the fielding of the system three years after the deployment decision (2003 at the earliest). The proposal was called the "3 plus 3" plan. However, the proposed plan did not include a specific commitment to deploy an NMD system. Instead, it allowed the deployment decision to be delayed indefinitely according to the preference of the President. Further, it contained no provisions during the first three years for lifting the restraints on testing that were imposed on the program by the Administration's unilateral observation of provisions of the defunct ABM Treaty.
  9. The release of a joint statement with Russia that ties the ABM Treaty to offensive reductions under START, bringing pressure on the Senate to approve a revived ABM Treaty. At a March 1997 summit in Helsinki, Finland, President Clinton and President Yeltsin issued a joint statement on preserving the ABM Treaty, which they called the "cornerstone of strategic stability."17 The statement tied the issue of Russian ratification of the 1993 START II treaty on reductions in strategic nuclear arsenals to 3,500 deployed warheads to the preservation of the ABM Treaty. Both the Reagan and Bush Administrations had successfully "de-linked" the START process from ABM Treaty matters so that both the Soviet Union and Russia could not use START as a reason to veto U.S. deployment of NMD. The Helsinki joint statement codified the reversal of this wise policy.
  10. An attempt to circumvent the Senate by signing an agreement to revive the ABM Treaty with four partners instead of one. By the late spring of 1997, the Administration had arrived at an agreement in principle with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine that they would replace the Soviet Union as America's treaty partners under the ABM Treaty. This agreement, if it entered into force, would revive the ABM Treaty and permanently ban the United States from fielding a territorial NMD system. However, this agreement is not yet ratified.18 The President was prepared to bring it into force without the consent of the Senate. Only the Senate's forceful demands that the President submit it for advice and consent as the U.S. Constitution requires persuaded him to abandon this approach. On May 15, 1997, the President certified to Congress that he would submit for advice and consent any agreement that has the characteristics of the one he was prepared to sign with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine.19
  11. The signing of an agreement in 1997 that would revive the ABM Treaty and prohibit the United States from deploying territorial missile defense. This agreement, called a memorandum of understanding (MOU), was signed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on September 26, 1997, in New York.20 If it enters into force, it would permanently ban the United States from fielding a territorial NMD system. Further, it will make it all but impossible to ease restrictions in the ABM Treaty by amendment, because such an amendment would require the agreement of five partners. The President is constitutionally required to submit this agreement to the Senate and since May 1997 has acknowledged his responsibility to do so; however, he has yet to submit it, perhaps fearing its rejection by the Senate. The agreement has not entered into force, but President Clinton remains committed to its ratification as the means to preserve the policy of mutual vulnerability embodied in the ABM Treaty, the "cornerstone of strategic stability."
  12. The announcement that fielding an NMD system would occur two years later than previously planned. Secretary of Defense William Cohen determined in January 1999 that the "3 plus 3" plan established in 1996 by his predecessor, Secretary Perry, was unworkable.21 The "3 plus 3" plan estimated that the decision to deploy could be made as early as 2000 and that deployment could be accomplished within the next three years; Cohen added two more years to the timeline, turning the "3 plus 3" plan into a "3 plus 5" plan. The result: The NMD development program is lagging behind the development of the missile threat from such states as China, Iran, and North Korea.
  13. A statement by the President--one day after signing the NMD act requiring the deployment of missile defense--that declared he would not implement the act. After taking up the issue of missile defense in 1998 and 1999, Congress put legislation on the President's desk in July 1999 which mandated that an NMD system be deployed "as soon as is technologically possible." The President signed this historic National Missile Defense Act on July 22, giving the decision to deploy the force of law.22 The following day, however, the President asserted that "the legislation makes clear that no decision on deployment has been made."23 Throughout the remainder of 1999 and 2000, he continued to describe the decision he would make as a deployment decision, even though the decision to deploy was made the moment he signed the act into law.
  14. An acknowledgment to the Russians that the planned U.S. NMD system would be ineffective. Since its announcement to pursue an NMD deployment plan in 1996, the Administration has faced the problem of reconciling two contradictions in its policy: attempting to preserve the ABM Treaty while working to deploy an NMD system. This contradiction has proved particularly provocative in U.S. diplomacy with Russia. The Administration tried to paper over this problem by proposing changes in the ABM Treaty, even though the facts showed that it was no longer in force and that Russia was not (and is not) a party to it. Russia has consistently opposed the suggested changes. In early 2000, the Administration shared with the Russians a draft protocol to a revived ABM Treaty,24 with revisions designed to create a new treaty obligation that would allow the United States to deploy a limited NMD system. During this process, the Administration revealed to the Russians that the system it planned to deploy under the "3 plus 5" program would be so limited that it would not provide an effective defense against ballistic missile attack.

President Clinton's announcement that he is deferring the initial construction activities for fielding a national missile defense should remove any remaining doubt about his position on missile defense for America.

The President has opposed missile defense ever since coming into office. He terminated the GPALS program he inherited from the Bush Administration. He slashed funding for research and development. He vetoed an entire Department of Defense authorization bill over a provision on missile defense. He sought to circumvent both the Constitution and the United States Senate in reviving the ABM Treaty with the former Soviet Union, which prohibits a territorial NMD system. Finally, he ignored the requirements of the law regarding the deployment of an NMD system. This decision most definitely was not the result of any technological barriers to deployment. Rather, it is the logical result of his long-standing hostility to missile defense for America.

President Clinton's failure to address the threat of ballistic missile attack is perhaps the single greatest national security failure of his Administration. It is a policy that leaves the American people vulnerable to a threat that is clear, real, and growing according to government and other expert assessments. America's NMD program is seriously trailing the escalating threat, and the nation's vulnerability becomes graver by the day. This need not be the case.

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

1. Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) are among those who urged the President to delay. They did so, however, to allow greater latitude to the next President to decide the system's architecture. They are wrong as well, insofar as the interruption in progress brought about by the decision to delay only makes it harder for the next Administration to proceed efficiently.

2. See "Executive Summary," Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, published pursuant to Public Law No. 201, 104th Congress, July 15, 1998.

3. Public Law 106-38.

4. The White House, "Remarks by the President on National Missile Defense," September 1, 2000, p. 4.

5. For an exhaustive description of the President's hostility to NMD, see "Stubborn Things: A Decade of Facts About Ballistic Missile Defense," Senator Thad Cochran, Chairman, Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services, Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, 106th Cong., 2nd Sess., September 2000.

6. For a detailed description of the missile defense program inherited from the Bush Administration, see Ambassador Henry F. Cooper, Director, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, "End of Tour Report," January 20, 1993.

7. Cochran, "Stubborn Things: A Decade of Facts About Ballistic Missile Defense."

8. U.S. Department of Defense, "DOD News Briefing," May 13, 1993.

9. U.S. Department of Defense, Report of the Bottom-Up Review, October 1993, pp. 43-48.

10. Bill Gertz, Betrayal: How the Clinton Administration Undermined American Security (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999),
pp. 237-241.

11. Stanley Riveles, "Address to the Seventh Multilateral Conference on Theater Missile Defense," at (April 15, 1998).

12. The White House, "Joint Statement on Strategic Stability and Nuclear Security by the Presidents of the United States and Russia," September 28, 1994.

13. "Do We Need a Missile Defense System," The Washington Times, May 16, 1996, p. A15.

14. "Executive Summary," Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States.

15. The White House, "To the House of Representatives," December 28, 1995.

16. U.S. Department of Defense, "Briefing with Secretary of Defense Bill Perry," February 16, 1996.

17. The White House, "Joint Statement Concerning the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty," March 21, 1997.

18. For a detailed description of why this agreement requires Senate consent, see Robert F. Turner, The ABM Treaty and the Senate: Issues of International and Constitutional Law (Charlottesville, Va.: Center for National Security Law, University of Virginia School of Law, 1999).

19. The White House, "To the Congress of the United States," 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. U.S. Department of Defense, "DOD News Briefing," January 20, 1999.

22. See Public Law 106-38.

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

24. Steven Lee Meyers and Jane Perlez, "Documents Detail U.S. Plan to Alter '72 Missile Treaty," The New York Times, April 28, 2000, p. A1.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy