September 2000
Friedensforum 5/00

Deutschsprachige Version

National Missile Defense
An issue for the world - but not for America

von Denise Groves


On Friday, July 7, the third test of the prototype national missile defense system failed. It was not the first time a test of the Pentagon's intercept technology failed, but it was certainly the most significant for the Clinton Administration. The results of the test were supposed to form the basis of the Pentagon's recommendation to President Clinton to begin deployment of NMD. But now the Deployment Readiness Review, as it is officially known, has been delayed as Defense Secretary William Cohen tries to determine if it is technologically possible to remain on schedule and begin deployment of NMD. The timing of the Pentagon's recommendation and President Clinton's expected decision on whether to begin construction threaten to launch renewed debates about NMD just before the elections this November.

However, those debates probably won't take place in the United States. National Missile Defense is not the same issue for Americans as it is for the rest of the world. For example, Europeans have been extremely vocal in their common opposition to the plan, usually arguing that NMD will strain the Atlantic Alliance, will have destabilizing effects in Russia, and possible spark a global arms race. Both the Russian and the Chinese governments have already warned that they will be forced to expand and modernize their nuclear forces in order to counter NMD. Even the Canadians have expressed their belief that NMD will actually increase insecurity in the world.

But the issue of NMD within the United States does not provoke the same level of debate. The fact that as many as one-third of Americans believe that the United States already has some form of national missile defense demonstrates not only ignorance, but also disinterest. Compared to education, health care, or even gun control, NMD is simply not very important to average Americans—despite some controversial attempts to mobilize opinion in favor of NMD. For example, a commercial aired on television earlier this year depicting babies sleeping in their cribs and kids playing baseball while missiles rained down on the United States. Sponsored by the conservative group "Coalition to Protect Americans Now," the commercial asked viewers the apocalyptic question, "Where will you be when the missiles are launched?"

Despite the Hollywood approach, the highly complicated, technical, and political nature of the debate has not captured the attention of the average voter. Even the two major party candidates for president, Vice President Al Gore and Governor George Bush, rarely discuss the issue in detail. During his speech at the Republican National Convention, George W. Bush said only that he believes that the 1972 ABM Treaty is "outdated" and that as President, he would deploy a missile defense system "at the earliest possible date." Al Gore did not even mention NMD during his hour-long speech at the Democratic Convention several weeks later.

The Republican Party platform and Bush's general campaign strategy reveal far more about the Republican position on this issue. Republicans claim that the Clinton/Gore Administration has failed to maintain the strength of America's military and has left the American population completely vulnerable to attack by nuclear terrorists. According to them, the Clinton/Gore team is also clinging to an obsolete treaty in order to hide the fact that they have been incapable of developing an effective system. George Bush seized on this point on July 8, the day after the embarrassing failure of the intercept test, by smugly claiming that "given the right leadership, American can develop an effective missile defense system."

According to Bush and his advisers, an effective system would be a boost-phase intercept system that would destroy an attacking missile soon after launch as opposed to current system, which would intercept missiles as they re-enter the atmosphere. For the Bush team, a boost-phase system is the most realistic option for two reasons. First, the technology appears to be the more effective option over the long term rather than the complex but limited system the Clinton Administration has pursued. Second, the Bush campaign believes that they can more easily sell a boost-phase system to the Russians and thus, win from them negotiated changes to the ABM Treaty.

Al Gore's public declarations of support for a limited missile defense are probably disheartening for many outside the United States who had hoped that the Democrats would bring reason into the NMD debate. But Gore's public statements do not necessarily mean that he actually believes in the value of NMD. In fact, it is rather clear that Gore is uncomfortable with project. The Vice President is widely considered to be the best educated and the most experienced on matters of defense, specifically with regard to nuclear weapons and arms control issues. But he is equally well versed in the brutality of election year politics. It is for this reason that Gore knows that he cannot afford to openly oppose the concept of NMD. If he voiced opposition, he would expose himself to accusations of being "soft on defense"—an accusation that proved fatal for President Carter's re-election campaign in 1980. Instead, Gore follows the Democratic party line, and asserts that he is in favor of developing the technology for a limited system that is compatible with the principles of the ABM Treaty.

In many ways, Gore's hesitant support for NMD reflects the unofficial skepticism within the agencies of the US government. The classified National Intelligence Estimate recently delivered to the White House warns that deployment of NMD might compel China to accelerate the expansion of its nuclear force and cause Russia to develop weapons capable of defeating any NMD system. A separate CIA report also concluded that both Russia and China have continued to provide technical assistance to states like Pakistan, Iran and North Korea for their missile development programs. Taken together, the reports warn that NMD could further complicate non-proliferation efforts worldwide, thus have the unintended effect of increasing instability.

It is certain that the failures of the intercept tests are also a source of concern among officials, particularly within the Pentagon. Although the NMD is supposed to protect the US against terrorism or blackmail, the repeated test failures raise the fundamental question: can leaders in the Pentagon, or indeed, in the White House, really rely upon the effectiveness of such a highly complex system? Some experts in Washington believe that even if NMD is eventually deployed and its dependability certified, the Pentagon will likely continue to conduct its operations as if the system did not exist at all.

President Clinton's decision in early September to keep the NMD development program on schedule will probably have little effect on Al Gore's prospects for the Presidential election in early November. Clinton's decision to sign contracts to begin initial construction will merely keep the program alive. The ultimate fate of the project will rest in the hands of the next President. Those watching the American elections from abroad, however, can be assured that the next President will not be chosen based on views about National Missile Defense.

Denise Groves is a researcher at the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Secuirty.