Has the United States Given Up on Missile Defense?

In the Wall Street Journal lately a debate has raged over the impact of the new START Treaty signed by Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in Prague on April 8.

In an editorial on April 17, the WSJ editorial board opined that the treaty would prevent the U.S. from converting an ICBM silo into a missile defense site.  It claims that the premable to the Treaty points to  “the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms,” thus linking existing weapons and America’s missile defenses. Article V contains a binding clause that the U.S. or Russia “shall not convert and shall not use ICBM launchers and [submarine-launched ballistic missile] launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein.” Article XIV lets any party withdraw if “extraordinary events . . . have jeopardized its supreme interests.”

The Journal then concludes– and  in my opinion correctly –  that:

“In practice, this will mean that any new defense initiative will have to overcome a Russian threat to withdraw from START. Opponents of missile defenses in Congress and abroad will claim that any such move would be destabilizing and start a new “arms race.”

In a furious rejoinder, James L. Jones, the White House National Security Adviser, responded with a denial of any impact on missile defense.

“As Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, the head of the Missile Defense Agency, explained to Congress on April 15, we have no plans to convert any additional ICBM silos. In fact, it would be less expensive to build a new silo rather than convert an old one. In other words, if we were to ever need more missile defense silos in California, we would simply dig new holes, which is not proscribed by the treaty (nor are we barred from building new missile defense silos anywhere else). Gen. O’Reilly also told Congress that launching missile defense interceptors from submarines was reviewed and deemed an “unattractive and extremely expensive option.” 

James concludes his letter by asserting that the Obama administration is unequivocally committed to missile defense:

” The treaty restrains neither our program for missile defense of the U.S. (at bases in California and Alaska) nor the new phased adaptive approach for missile defense in Europe. The president remains committed to developing and deploying missile defenses, as evidenced by his nearly $10 billion budget request for fiscal year 2011, almost $700 million more than the current year. A Russian threat to withdraw from START will not deter the president from taking steps necessary to protect the U.S. and her allies.

Is there or is there not then a linkage between missile deployment and missile defense in this Treaty that gives the Russians an effective veto over the development of U.S. missile defense systems?  

The Russians seem to think so.  Before the Treaty was signed, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated in a Business Week report:

 “Linkage to missile defense is clearly spelled out in the accord and is legally binding. Russia will have the right to exit the accord if the U.S.’s build-up of its missile defense strategic potential in numbers and quality begins to considerably affect the efficiency of Russian strategic nuclear forces,” 

Hillary Clinton , however,  clearly doesn’t see it that way.   On  April 9, following the signing, she commented:

  “Now, one aspect of our deterrent that we specifically did not limit in this treaty is missile defense. The agreement has no restrictions on our ability to develop and deploy our planned missile defense systems or long-range conventional strike weapons now or in the future.”

Well, then, who’s interpretation is right – the Russians or the Americans? In the absence of an adjudicator, the matter is moot. For what is clear here is that there is no meeting of the minds on the subject.   The Russians continue to see the construction of  an effective missile defense shield as an aggressive act in itself, which will jeopardize the execution of any of their nuclear  arms reduction commitments.  This is in line with Russian policy going back as far as the Reagan era and was most recently put on full display in their resistance to the deployment of missile defense systems in Poland and Czechoslovakia. 

In that instance, the Obama administration cravenly backed out of its commitments to those countries, souring the East European leadership on American resolve.  The United States won nothing for that retreat, save for this treaty, over whose interpretation the two countries can now not agree. 

The Treaty, under the Russian interpretation, will do serious damage to a program that has already been eviscerated by the Obama administration.  The United States, to put it bluntly, does not have an effective missile defense shield and cuts in last year’s budget of approximately 30% for missile defense, have meant that the  program may have been set back by up to ten years.

The START Treaty, under the U.S. Constitution, must now be submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification.   The Senate should not ratify the Treaty until it receives ironclad commitments from the Obama administration to the pursuit of an aggressive missile defense program and its insistence that it will not allow Russian intimidation to veto any systems now either  in development or to be developed in the future.  

In the end, without a clear U.S. demand that there be no linkage between missile deployment and missile defense, the Treaty will not be worth the paper it is is written on and will be dead before even one bolt is unscrewed on any ICBM silo.


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