October 31, 1995


"The ABM Treaty: Issues and Problems"

Nearly two years ago, Russia, the United States, Belarus and Ukraine quietly took up ABM Treaty implementation work in the Standing Consultative Commission (SCC).1 There was agreement that the two main pieces of business were to work out (1) arrangements for the succession from a bilateral to a multilateral treaty in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union and (2) an agreement on a formula for distinguishing between ABM systems limited by the Treaty and theater missile defenses not covered by the Treaty -- the so-called "demarcation problem."

One looks back somewhat nostalgically on this early period. The discussions were carried on outside public glare by experts steeped in the technical details of the Treaty, its history in practice and in interpretation. There was agreement on some fundamental principles and assumptions. Most significantly, there was consensus on the importance of preserving the integrity of the ABM Treaty and pursuing effective Theater Missile Defenses (TMD). But those quiet days seem now far behind us. Instead, the future of the ABM Treaty is being called into question and has become the subject of parliamentary hearings and proposed legislation. The substantive details have been pushed into the background as larger philosophical problems take center stage, such as the role of strategic defenses and deterrence in U.S.-Russian relations.

To be sure, these are important issues, and they should be debated. But we also need to refocus on the issues of demarcation and succession: identify the areas of agreement; understand the areas of disagreement; and compare solutions to problems. What I propose is to provide a U.S. perspective on these issues. Only by sorting out the details will it be possible to find solutions and, in so doing, preserve the Treaty and the benefits, such as the reductions in strategic offense systems under START I and START II, that flow from it.

Treaty Basis for Demarcation Negotiations

The problem of defining strategic ABM systems cannot be resolved by references to the Treaty text itself. While Article II states that an ABM system is a system to "counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements in flight trajectory," there exists no technical definition elsewhere in the Treaty of what constitutes a strategic ballistic missile. In 1972, when the Treaty was concluded, some submarine-launched strategic ballistic missiles (SLBMs) had relatively short ranges; indeed their ranges were exceeded by those of certain land-based theater ballistic missiles. By 1993, the problem of definition had been made even more difficult, because it was unclear whether the concept of a strategic ballistic missile should be "modernized," along with the systems themselves.

1 In late 1994, Kazakhstan joined discussions in the SCC.

Complementing Article II are the "collateral constraints" on non-ABM systems. Article VI of the Treaty prohibits giving non-ABM systems, e.g., defenses against aerodynamic targets and other than strategic ballistic missiles, ABM capabilities, and prohibits their being "tested in an ABM mode." While a U.S. Unilateral Statement of April 7, 1972, along with subsequent testimony by Executive Branch Officials to the Senate placed our interpretation of these provisions on the record, the statement and testimony represented a guide to assessing compliance, rather than a legal standard binding on the Treaty Parties. Although the term "tested in an ABM mode" was clarified in a subsequent 1978 agreement, the lack of a "strategic ballistic missile" definition left a degree of ambiguity in the testing restrictions noted above. Furthermore, the prohibition on giving non-ABM systems ABM capabilities compounded the uncertainty. Assessing ABM capability in the absence of testing in an ABM mode was a matter of analysis and hypothesis.

Notwithstanding the evident ambiguity, these provisions have played a major role in maintaining the Treaty's integrity and were quite important to the United States. The Soviet Union possessed a massive air defense system across the Eurasian continent. It was central to the coherence of the Treaty's limitations that this air defense system not be upgraded in such a way that it could carry out interceptions of strategic ballistic targets. If the capabilities of these systems were to be upgraded, they could even create the basis for a prohibited territorial defense against strategic deterrent forces.

Therefore, the United States sought to maintain a quite substantial separation (or "buffer") between the characteristics and capabilities of strategic ABM systems and those of non-ABM defenses. On a number of occasions in the SCC, the United States expressed its concerns about the possible ABM capabilities of certain Soviet air defense systems. The Soviet Union denied any inconsistency between its programs and the provisions of the ABM Treaty. During the dialogue on these issues, the Soviet side proposed a clarification of the Treaty that would have established boundaries of permitted testing for non-ABM systems. These initial discussions did not bear immediate fruit.

The ambiguity inherent in the Treaty and the subsequent discussions with the Soviet Union in the SCC were essential background factors when the United States came to review the compliance of its TMD programs, including such programs as the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program. The Administration decided that it was in the interests of both the United States and Russia to clarify the demarcation between ABM and TMD systems through agreement. This continues to be the U.S. position.

The Setting for the Negotiations

The Gulf War with Iraq underscored the dangers of missile proliferation for regional security, and spurred interest in effective defenses against theater ballistic missiles. In retrospect, it has been recognized that Iraq had the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction using its SCUD missile force, although for reasons not entirely clear even today, it was deterred from employing that capability. Moreover, through its own indigenous efforts, it was able to extend the range of those missiles. Even though the impetus for U.S. theater missile defenses bore no direct relationship to the U.S.-Russian security equation, the potential conflict with the ABM Treaty needed to be resolved cooperatively with the other Parties.

When the SCC convened in November 1993, the Clinton Administration had completed its comprehensive ("bottom-up") defense review which deemphasized the national missile defense objectives of the Bush Administration and gave top priority to theater missile defenses. The U.S. delegation arrived in Geneva with instructions to agree to the principle of a multilateral Treaty and to propose a clear boundary between permitted and prohibited testing that would clarify the Treaty with respect to TMD.

Even before the negotiations began, the United States took an important step by reaffirming the "narrow" or "traditional" interpretation of the ABM Treaty. A controversy over Treaty interpretation that had bedeviled previous negotiations on strategic defenses was thus put to rest.

Given the emphasis on theater missile defense, the United States withdrew earlier proposals to relax the Treaty's limitations on national missile defense. Taken off the table were proposals for:

The position of the Administration on these points remains the same.

A Note on Succession

It may be worthwhile mentioning the factors that influenced the U.S. decision to accept multilateralization of the Treaty. Some have questioned the decision to open the door to successor states other than Russia. These sentiments have been expressed not only in the United States but in Russia as well. The decision in favor of multilateralization was not primarily the result of the stated interests of Ukraine and Belarus in being recognized as Treaty Parties, or the October 1993 Bishkek Resolution on ABM Succession by ten states of the former Soviet Union. More important, in my view, was the expressed Russian sentiment on behalf of multilateral succession to guarantee the stability and continuity of the existing ABM system and ABM-related facilities, parts of which resided outside Russian borders. At the same time, the United States received reassurances that the rights and obligations under the Treaty would remain unchanged and would continue to apply to the whole territory of the former Soviet Union, even under the conditions of multilateral succession. Discussion of modalities and conditions for Treaty succession have paralleled the demarcation discussion.

Demarcation Negotiations

Negotiations on demarcation and succession have been taking place since late November 1993. From November 1993 to November 1994, the SCC met in Geneva a total of four months over four sessions (more than the SCC had met in the previous several years). In mid-1994, ACDA Director John Holum led a high level team to Moscow, Kiev and Minsk to provide some impetus to the negotiations. Other diplomatic exchanges also have taken place and continue. As negotiations progressed, U.S.-Russian differences on demarcation became increasingly prominent. The other states, Ukraine, Belarus, and (recently) Kazakhstan have participated in the search for common ground. But they recognize that the United States and Russia must lead the way toward agreement on demarcation, and they have encouraged bilateral U.S.-Russian discussions.

From the outset, there was little disagreement among the participants about the underlying premises for the negotiations. A common concern about the threat and a common interest in theater defenses were apparent. Most notably, there was an early meeting of minds on the characterization of the theater ballistic missile threat that TMD systems needed to be capable of countering. This led to an early understanding that a final demarcation agreement would permit an interceptor to be tested against a target missile having a maximum velocity up to 5 km/sec and a range of up to 3500 km, and not be considered ABM. Testing against such targets would still leave significant "buffer" between the velocity of non-strategic targets and those of strategic missiles, which typically have velocities on the order of 7 km/sec.

An interest in transparency was also evident in the various approaches in the negotiations. From the outset, the United States was prepared to be candid in describing its intentions with respect to TMD and to be forthcoming in sharing information with the other sides about its programs. It soon became clear that binding confidence-building measures (CBM) would contribute to the achievement of an agreement. Such CBM's could include descriptions of selected TMD programs of the sides and notifications of tests. In fact, the United States has taken the initiative in a number of fora to provide information explaining U.S. programs and capabilities.

These two features of a demarcation agreement -- first, a description of target missile velocity and range indicating when a target missile should be considered "strategic," and second, an agreed set of confidence-building measures -- are important building blocks in constructing an agreement. Thus, there is a foundation of shared goals and agreed approaches for the sides to build on.

A major area of disagreement has involved the performance characteristics of non-ABM, or TMD, interceptors. The Russian side has sought to limit interceptor performance by restricting the maximum interceptor velocity. The United States has taken the position that such limitations were unnecessary and unrealistic. We have tried to make clear that U.S. systems, particularly taking into account planned numbers and deployment configuration, would not have a realistic operational capability against strategic ballistic missiles. Furthermore, a system that had never been tested against a strategic ballistic missile could not be counted on to carry out an ABM mission and would not be deployed for that mission. The United States also argued that parameters such as interceptor velocity alone cannot determine whether or not a system has ABM capability. Many factors contribute to the capability to intercept a strategic ballistic missile. To seek to take account of all of those factors would amount to creation of a new Treaty regime. This the United States is not prepared to accept.

In mid-1994, the United States responded to Russian proposals with a counterproposal of its own. While not accepting the validity of performance constraints, the United States stated it would be prepared to accept certain limits on interceptor capability, as long as those limitations would not reduce the necessary effectiveness of the TMD systems the United States was planning to develop. In fact, this counterproposal helped resolve some differences, but did not satisfy Russian concerns about the deployment of high speed systems.

However, the negotiations reached an impasse late last year largely because of disagreement on the question of the future deployment of highly-capable TMD systems. The sides could not agree as to whether or not systems with higher-velocity interceptors could be deployed without a subsequent agreement. The United States took the position that the agreement should permit the deployment of certain systems, if a Party so chose. Other participants argued that deployment should be deferred until completion of a second stage of negotiations. The United States was not opposed to continuing negotiations, but it was not prepared to defer all such deployments. It was on this point, chiefly, that disagreement could not be overcome.

Changes in the Negotiating Context

The negotiating logjam in Geneva was not the only factor that has recently led the Administration to re-examine its approach to demarcation. Two other factors have intervened to impel us in this direction: the changes in Congress and the recent compliance judgments on THAAD testing and Navy upper tier programs.

The Congress elected in November 1994 has displayed an attitude toward ballistic missile defenses markedly different from that of its predecessor. The previous Democratic majority, especially in the Senate, opposed major modification to the ABM Treaty. The new Congress has taken the opposite tack. Since the elections, there has been a resurgent interest in moving ahead on all fronts with robust programs, in the National Missile Defense as well as TMD areas. Ballistic missile defense was singled out in the Republican Contract with America before November. Since then, Congress has sought to force the pace of development of missile defenses.

Recently, the Senate adopted a bipartisan missile defense amendment. The Administration has not taken a formal position on the Senate Bill, as passed. However, the Administration believes that the Bill as amended represents a significant improvement upon the earlier Senate version of the DOD authorization Bill. Most importantly, the Bill specifies that it is U.S. policy to implement the Bill's missile defense provisions in a manner consistent with the processes specified in the Treaty. Also of particular significance, the Senate Bill would not impose a unilateral demarcation standard or attempt to prevent the Administration from negotiating on demarcation. It does, however, require that any agreement be submitted for Congressional approval if its restrictions go beyond the velocity (5km/sec) and range (3500km) of ballistic missile targets in TMD tests.

Compliance judgments were rendered earlier this year by the Administration on THAAD testing and Navy upper tier TMD programs. In both cases, the Administration judged the programs to be Treaty-compliant, and the U.S. Congress was so informed.

Let me emphasize a key point: System capabilities taken as a whole determine ABM capability; a single interceptor performance parameter alone is not determinative of a system capability to counter a strategic ballistic missile, let alone its impact on the strategic offensive capability of the other side.

Summit Joint Statement

Against the backdrop of these significant changes, it was imperative to take a new look at how to achieve progress on demarcation in a way that took account of the widest range of national security interests. Therefore, the Administration decided early this year to concentrate its efforts on bilateral discussions with the Russian government in high-level political channels.

The product of those discussions, the May 1995 Summit Joint Statement, was a set of principles to establish the basis for further discussions to reach a demarcation agreement. It reaffirmed the commitment of the sides to the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability. It established --for the first time publicly -- the principle that effective TMD can be deployed within the framework of the ABM Treaty. In addition, the principles make clear that we are not trying to apply the Treaty to TMD systems that may simply have a theoretical capability against some strategic missiles, but which would not be militarily significant in the context of operational considerations such as numbers and locations of deployments, system characteristics and realistic engagement scenarios. Specifically, effective TMD systems can be deployed without posing a realistic threat to the strategic nuclear force of the other side and will not be tested to give such systems that capability.

These principles are not legally binding provisions but the foundation for further discussions to reach agreement.

Since the May Summit, the United States and Russia have had a number of further bilateral discussions on the specific elements of an understanding building on these principles.

The Question of "ABM Capability"

The Summit Joint Statement sought to lend greater substance to the unresolved determination of "ABM capability," a source of significant misunderstanding. According to the Statement,

Theater missile defenses may be deployed by each side which (1) will not pose a realistic threat to the strategic nuclear force of the other side and (2) will not be tested to give such systems that capability. Theater missile defenses will not be deployed by the sides for use against each other. The scale of deployment--in number and demographic scope--of theater missile defense systems by either side will be consistent with theater ballistic missile programs confronting that side.

The Presidents also declared that such TMD activities must not lead to violation or circumvention of the Treaty.

Some have taken a very simplified approach to determining ABM capability. The results, reported in the press, have influenced the public debate. In the realistic context of the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship, TMD cannot carry out an ABM mission because:

The Joint Statement indicates that a useful discussion has begun to clarify how the Treaty's general reference to "ABM capability" can be applied in practical situations.

The Role of Deterrence

The discussion being carried on between the United States and Russia with the intent of preserving the viability and integrity of the ABM Treaty in the context of advanced technology and new security requirements would be inconceivable without the vast changes that have taken place in the bilateral relationship over the past several years. But the public understanding of those changes is still incomplete and even contradictory. Some critics argue that the ABM Treaty, as such, is obsolete, that the United States and Russia should no longer base their security on an outdated doctrine of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD). Another set of critics contends that any agreement that permits more effective theater defenses would tear the fabric of deterrence that has provided security for nearly 50 years. They argue that doing so would create instability and could endanger mutual strategic reductions.

The nuclear relationship between the United States and Russia has changed beyond recognition since 1991. Neither Americans nor Russians wish to continue to base their security on the structure of MAD; former Cold War protagonists are seeking to find a new basis for security. In 1994, Defense Secretary Perry said that the days of MAD are behind us. He said, "We now have an opportunity to create a new relationship based not on MAD, not on Mutual Assured Destruction, but rather on another acronym MAS, Mutual Assured Safety."

The ABM Treaty can assist in creating this new relationship by promoting stability. It does so not by perpetuating MAD, but by easing the transition from a world based on nuclear retaliation to new arrangements based on cooperation. We are still emerging from the shell of the old world. But, nuclear weapons remain a preoccupation among Russian military and political elites concerned about how to maintain parity and Russia's status in the world.

U.S. adherence to the ABM Treaty helps provide reassurance that the United States is not seeking strategic advantage in this period of Russian internal economic and political transformation. Furthermore, bringing START II into force is crucial to advancing the basis for more cooperative relations. This Treaty will soon come before the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent. Reassured over the ABM Treaty, the Russian government is committed to bring START II before the Duma for action. The United States and Russia share an interest in making sure that the debate about the future of the ABM Treaty does not become a cause of, or excuse for, unwarranted opposition to START II.

Prospects for Agreement

The current ABM Treaty discussions have created "strange bedfellows" among critics. Stalwart defenders of the Treaty along with longtime opponents of the Treaty find themselves occupying the same ground in opposing the Administration's policy. A number of arms control advocates have sought to create an artificial linkage between START II ratification and the ABM Treaty. But, linkage would be unwise. START II deserves to be ratified because it serves the security interest of my country and yours. As reaffirmed by President Clinton in the May 1995 Joint Statement, the United States is committed to the ABM Treaty.

The choice between abandoning the Treaty and leaving it untouched is no choice at all. The Treaty continues to be central to U.S. and Russian security; it is the key to unlocking the door leading to strategic reductions that will eventually place the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship on a new footing. But, at the same time, regarding it as an untouchable document risks transforming it into a truly obsolete instrument that is increasingly viewed as an obstacle to security. The ABM Treaty should not become a "fly in amber" -- a fossil of an age past. It should remain a living document that is sufficiently plastic to be adapted to new security requirements. This is the objective the Clinton and Yeltsin Administrations have pursued, and will attain.