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The Washington Quarterly 25.3 (2002) 163-176

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Missile Defense after the ABM Treaty

James M. Lindsay and Michael E. O'Hanlon


During his campaign for the presidency, George W. Bush promised to "build effective missile defenses, based on the best available options, at the earliest possible date." 1 As president, Bush took major steps to follow through on this pledge during his first year in office. He increased spending on missile defense substantially; directed the Pentagon to explore a broader array of antimissile technologies; and, most significantly, terminated U.S. participation in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Bush accomplished all these tasks at a far lower political cost than anyone expected. The horrific events of September 11 hastened, if not caused, a major shift in Russian policy toward the United States generally and toward missile defense specifically. The attack also quieted, for the time being at least, domestic critics of missile defense.

Although Bush's commitment to proceeding with missile defense development is beyond doubt, his precise plans remain unclear. The administration has not settled on a specific missile defense architecture, and its public statements about future deployments are sketchy at best. This ambiguity is attributable not to a lack of forthrightness but rather to the immaturity of missile defense technology. President Bill Clinton's administration had only one long-range missile defense program under development—a midcourse system designed to destroy individual warheads in space—which is far from being deployable. The Bush administration is now scrambling to turn other defensive concepts into systems it can test, an undertaking that will take years to accomplish. In the meantime, the political climate at home and abroad could change, thereby reigniting domestic and international controversies over the wisdom of missile defense. [End Page 163]

Bush's Ambiguous Vision for Missile Defense

Bush's discussion of missile defense during the campaign was long on rhetoric but short on details about the kind of defense he would build. This ambiguity persists. The Pentagon no longer distinguishes between so-called theater missile defense (TMD) systems aimed against shorter-range missiles and so-called national missile defense (NMD) systems designed to intercept long-range missiles; the Pentagon instead prefers the generic label "missile defense." The labeling change, however, does not erase the fact that, although TMD systems are relatively uncontroversial because they do not threaten the deterrents of other major nuclear powers, NMD systems are controversial precisely because they can. On the central question of what the long-range missile defense is expected to accomplish, the Bush administration has yet to give a definitive answer.

On May 1, 2001, Bush outlined his vision for missile defense, emphasizing his commitment to protect the country against long-range missile attack but suggesting that his administration was of two minds on the goal of missile defense. Bush implied at times that his goal was a limited missile defense, designed to shoot down the handful of long-range missiles that so-called rogue states might acquire. He said that the most urgent threat facing the United States came not from thousands of Russian nuclear-armed missiles but from "a small number of missiles in the hands of these states ... for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life." 2 Iraq was the only country he named, but he almost certainly had Iran and North Korea in mind as well. He also spoke at length on the need to create a "new strategic framework" with Russia to replace the arms control treaties crafted during the Cold War.

At other times, however, Bush hinted that he wanted defenses capable of doing much more than intercepting a few Iraqi or North Korean missiles. He spoke dismissively of the principles underlying the ABM Treaty, and nothing in his remarks suggested that his proposed new strategic framework would limit the kinds of defenses the United States could build. Given his previously expressed concern about possible accidental or unauthorized Russian missile launches, which could theoretically involve several hundred warheads (the number associated with a single ballistic missile...


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