ABM Treaty Update

Tasneem Jamal

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2002 Volume 23 Issue 1

On December 13, 2001 President George Bush announced the intention of the United States to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. In making this announcement, President Bush provided Russia with the required six-months notice to break the 1972 treaty.

The pull-out signifies Washington’s intention to pursue the development of a ballistic missile defence (BMD) shield. Military experts have argued that testing of the necessary elements to build a shield designed to protect the US from attack by weapons of mass destruction delivered by long-range ballistic missiles would ultimately abrogate the treaty. A rigorous research and development program is already underway.

In the months preceding this announcement President Bush had engaged President Putin in debate over the potential to modify the ABM Treaty to allow limited missile defence. The discussions culminated in the Washington-Crawford Summit in November. Arguing that the ABM Treaty is a relic of the Cold War relationship between the US and the USSR and not representative of the “new strategic relationship” with Russia, Bush pledged to reduce the US arsenal of operational nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 over 10 years, apparently in the hope that Putin would respond with concessions on the treaty.

Even with promises of reductions, Putin would not make concessions and held that the 1972 treaty was still relevant. Without Russian compromise and with clear motivation to go ahead with BMD development, Washington announced its intention to dissolve the treaty.

Reaction to the US statement has been varied. While on the one hand expressing “regret” over the US decision, President Putin said the move posed no threat to Russia. At a December 16 press conference, Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted that “there is not going to be an arms race with the Russians and it is not going to be a crisis in our relationship.” Analysts suspect that potential benefits from its growing economic relationship with the US outweighed Russia’s allegiance to the treaty.

Conversely, China has expressed outrage over the US decision and strongly opposes both dissolving the treaty and US development of missile defence capability. China has consistently warned that dissolution of the ABM could provoke a build-up of its nuclear arsenal, which could subsequently spark India and Pakistan to enlarge their nuclear arsenals. Colin Powell was sent to the region to address China’s concerns, again insisting to the press that the move “is not a threat against their strategic deterrence.”

Since the US announced its plan to abandon the ABM Treaty, the results of the second Nuclear Posture Review were presented to Congress and the report was leaked to the press. Available information suggests that the military’s new strategy pairs enhanced conventional capability with a reduced number of operationally deployed nuclear weapons, maintaining nuclear deterrence as central to US military capabilities, with the capacity to resume nuclear weapons testing if necessary.

The US plan to reduce its deployed nuclear force – introduced in Crawford and outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review – has blurry parameters. Further clarification suggests that reduction of the deployed force does not necessarily entail destruction of the warheads.

The Department of Defense has stated that in reducing its deployed force, weapons will be stockpiled as active, inactive, and “in the queue for destruction.” No information has been provided on the number to be held in the active stockpile, which could be redeployed at short notice, or the number to be placed in the queue for destruction, but it is clear that the US plans to keep a large number of warheads accessible for use.

Russia strongly opposes this definition of ‘reduction’, arguing that both the US and Russia should be moving towards complete destruction of their nuclear forces. It supports the irreversibility of reduction strategies, as was pledged in the 13 practical steps of the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document.

Talks continue between Russia and the US on a reduction strategy that will be codified in a legal agreement. Both countries have expressed hope that a compromise will be reached before a May Summit when President Bush will visit Moscow.

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