Missile defence aims for treaty, not missiles

2019-03-06 08:17:01

By Debora MacKenzie The administration of US President George W Bush has made its clearest statement yet that it plans to violate the treaty prohibiting missile defence “in months, not years”. Russia immediately reacted by warning that the move could start a new arms race. But arms experts say missile defence is at such an early stage of development, that no test that would violate the treaty should be needed for years. They charge that the Bush administration has deliberately chosen test strategies that violate the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to weaken international arms control, not because they are needed for missile defence. A document sent to US embassies this week states that “to meet our deterrence and defence requirements … the US needs release from the constraints of the ABM Treaty”. It said the US now plans to test as-yet unproven technologies. “These tests will come in conflict with the ABM Treaty in months, not years.” But Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think-tank, and former head of missile defence testing under the Clinton administration, says “the ABM Treaty is not an obstacle to proper development and testing of a national missile defence system.” The kind of missile defence that is farthest into development, hence closest to realistic testing, involves trying to shoot down a missile in mid-flight. That is permitted under the ABM treaty, says Coyle. Joseph Cirincione, head of the Non-proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC, says four kinds of tests could violate the treaty, but none is imminent. “The first shot of an airborne anti-missile laser is not scheduled until 2003 at the earliest,” he says and testing a sea-based interceptor is also unlikely before then. “No tests of sea-based radar to detect incoming missiles have even been scheduled yet as far as I know,” he adds. The fourth test involves Alaska. “Shooting a missile into Alaska, or building radar to detect it or interceptors there, would violate the Treaty,” says Cirincione. Work is planned to start this summer on the site, and Russian officials are quoted as saying they will regard “the first cubic meter of concrete” as US withdrawal from ABM. But it is not necessary to fire missiles into Alaska to develop missile defence. One justification would be that missiles fired at Alaska from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California would reach high speeds, making efforts to intercept them more realistic. “But Vandenberg is farther away from Kwajalein”, the Pacific island where the US conducts already missile tests, says Cirincione. “Missiles would reach higher speeds between those two sites.” Shooting in the reverse direction, from Alaska to Kwajalein, would usefully simulate the north-south trajectory of an attack on the US. Both of these scenarios would be legal, because Kwajalein is an “agreed testing facility” under the ABM Treaty, whereas Alaska is not. In emphasising Alaska, “the administration picked the one test improvement that would violate the treaty,” charges Cirincione. The choice seems aimed more at damaging international arms control agreements that are seen as limiting US options, than speeding missile defence, he says: “For some people in the Administration,