Dumping the ABM Treaty: Was It Worth It?

In retrospect, the Bush administration should not have fielded its national missile defense system. The technology was not ripe; the threat had not materialized; and the opportunity cost was too high. 

President George W. Bush announcing his intentions to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) on December 13, 2001.

By Tom Z. Collina

Ten years ago this week, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, becoming the first nation since World War II to exit a major arms control agreement. At the time, the George W. Bush administration’s decision was highly controversial, sidelining a treaty that had guided U.S.-Russian strategic relations for three decades. With the benefit of hindsight we can now ask, was it worth it?

From a national security perspective, the answer is “no.” Exiting the treaty, which barred Washington and Moscow from fielding nationwide defenses against long-range or “strategic” ballistic missiles, allowed the Bush administration to field a rudimentary system in late 2004, just before the November election. Today, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system has 30 interceptors in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The GMD system, however, is widely considered to be ineffective. Despite tens of billions of dollars spent, the system has not had a successful intercept test since 2008, with two failures in 2010. A recent report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences found that, “The current GMD system has serious shortcomings, and provides at best a limited, initial defense against a relatively primitive threat.”

To fix it, the National Academy suggests a new two-stage Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) that is smaller and faster (6 km/sec) than the current version and a new “more capable” kill vehicle. In other words, the system needs to be completely redesigned, which would take significant time and money. And even then, no design has yet been proven effective against decoys, which, according to the U.S. intelligence community, would be within the technical reach of any nation that could field a long-range ballistic missile.

The irony is that the necessary development work could have been carried out within the confines of the ABM treaty, which banned deployment but not testing of a land-based system limited to 100 interceptors at one site. The other main missile defense program, the ship-based Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), has yet to be tested against a long-range missile target, and thus would not have violated the ABM treaty either. Other systems that could have violated the ABM treaty, such as the Airborne Laser, have been cancelled.

Moreover, the Bush administration argued that the U.S.-Russian nuclear rivalry was obsolete and the ABM Treaty hindered the development and deployment of missile defense programs to deal with potential missile programs from “rogue” states, such as North Korea and Iran. But, despite fear-mongering by pro-missile defense camps in the late 1990s that both North Korea and Iran could have a long-range missile capability by 2003, neither country has yet fielded such a weapon. During the last 14 years, Pyongyang has conducted four launches of long-range missiles, the last attempt in April; all have failed. Iran has never flight-tested missiles capable of attacking targets significantly beyond the Middle East.

In retrospect, the Bush administration should not have activated the GMD system. Neither the technology nor the threat was ripe.  Instead of withdrawing from the ABM treaty ten years ago, the United States could have stayed in the agreement and continued to test the GMD and SM-3 systems until the technology and threat matured.

Opportunity Costs

The United States and the Soviet Union negotiated the ABM Treaty as part of an effort to control their offensive nuclear arms race. In the treaty preamble, the two sides asserted that effective limits on anti-missile systems would be a “substantial factor in curbing the race in strategic offensive arms.”

The two sides reasoned that limiting defensive systems would reduce the need to build more or new offensive weapons to overcome any defense that the other might deploy. Without effective national defenses, each superpower remained vulnerable, even at reduced or low offensive force holdings, to the other’s nuclear weapons, deterring either side from launching an attack first because it faced a potential retaliatory strike that would assure its own destruction.

While will never really know how events would have unfolded had the Bush administration stuck with the ABM treaty, we can speculate. The 1993 START II treaty, signed by President George H.W. Bush, never entered into force in large part because of his son’s ABM treaty withdrawal. Both countries ratified START II, but the Russian Duma conditioned its approval on keeping the ABM agreement in place. Russian President Putin announced he would not abide by START II on June 14, 2002, the day after the U.S. unilateral abrogation of the ABM treaty took effect.

START II would have capped U.S. and Russian strategic warheads at 3,500 and banned land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with multiple warheads (MIRVs), widely recognized then and now as the most destabilizing weapons. While the United States is moving away from ICBMs with multiple warheads anyway, Russia now plans to keep its heavily MIRVed missiles.

Moreover, U.S. withdrawal has contributed greatly to Russia’s current distrust of Washington’s intentions regarding its missile defense plans in Europe. As things stand now, U.S.-Russian talks are at a standstill. NATO announced an “interim capability” for its U.S.-built SM-3 interceptor system in Chicago, while Moscow boycotted the summit and has threatened to attack components of NATO’s missile interceptor system, which Moscow fears could become increasingly capable in the years ahead. Future variants of the SM-3 interceptor could be deployed that would be capable of hitting long-range ballistic missiles if such a threat were to emerge.

Russia would presumably be less suspicious of U.S. missile defense plans in Europe today if the ABM treaty were in place, making it more likely that the two sides could agree on missile defense cooperation and the next round of U.S.-Russian strategic weapons reductions, as well as common sense accounting and reductions of the remaining non-strategic (a.k.a. tactical) nuclear weapons left over in Russia and Europe from the Cold War.

For its part, China has responded to U.S. strategic missile defense deployments by modernizing its strategic forces, increasing their mobility and number while improving the survivability of its re-entry vehicles.

Politics Trumps Technology

Despite these strategic costs, many of which were predicted at the time, President George W. Bush chose politics over technology when he decided to dump the ABM treaty in 2002 and announced he would field an interceptor system in 2004. President Bush had made a campaign promise to deploy a national missile defense system, and the ABM treaty stood in the way.

As former Nixon administration legal advisor for ABM treaty negotiations John Rhinelander put it in 2001: “When I was involved in the 1970s, the difficult issues were based 60 percent on technology and 40 percent on politics. At present, keys issues are decided 100 percent on politics and zero percent on technology.”

By fielding the GMD system, the United States did not gain any meaningful ability to confidently intercept long-range missiles. But the Bush administration did succeed in allowing Russia to keep its most destabilizing weapons, encouraging Chinese nuclear modernization, and complicating current U.S.-Russian arms reduction efforts and missile defense cooperation talks.

The Bush administration’s politically-motivated abrogation of the ABM treaty was a strategic mistake, and its consequences are still with us today.

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