Canadian NPT Delegation Report to NGOs: NMD at the NPT

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

Sixth NPT Review Conference

Even though the US National Missile Defense plan (NMD) made frequent showings in the first three weeks of debate at the NPT Review Conference, there is currently only one reference to the issue in the formal committee reports that will form the basis of the final week’s discussions leading, should the gods and certain un-named states will it, to a final document.  That lone reference is taken directly from the joint statement by the nuclear weapon states (NWS), in which they commit themselves to “preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons, in accordance with its provisions.”

While many raised the issue in opening statements, including Canada, the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), and the nuclear-weapons states France and Britain, and others like China and Russia have not been reluctant to raise NMD and the ABM Treaty in the follow-up debates, there seems to be an informal undertaking not to press the matter – diplomacy’s early warning sensors can spot consensus-defying issues and phrases at great distances, so inside the conference halls NMD has been given a fairly wide berth.

Outside those halls it’s another matter. NGO events, featuring a wide range of international experts and researchers, have zeroed in on the issue, frequently noting their keen disappointment at what they perceive to be a failure of states in the NPT Review conference to seriously address NMD for the serious challenge to the NPT and its objectives that it represents.  The key points made at the NGO events can be roughly summarized as follows.

First, NMD deployment would be a violation of the NPT Article VI obligation to disarm inasmuch as it would carry with it the explicit intention to maintain in the long-term, essentially indefinitely, significant levels (thousands) of strategic nuclear weapons on high alert in both the United States and Russia.

Second, NMD intentions or ambitions are a manifestation of US rejection of a rules-based international security environment in favour of the unilateral pursuit of military superiority/dominance. That same theme was also raised in the speech to the NPT plenary by Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, when he identified the “drift toward unilateral options,” in which he included the proposed unilateral NMD, as “a source of anxiety.” Several analysts and academics, including author and peace studies professor Michael Klare, have spoken to NPT-related events about the US drive, articulated at least indirectly in current security planning documents, for nuclear and conventional “absolute superiority,” including the domination of space and immunity from the nuclear threats of others.

The third point prominently made at these NMD events being held on the margins of this NPT Review Conference is that the real US objective in pursuing ballistic missile defence is not protection from “rogue” threats, but is to counter present and future regional nuclear powers that might come into open conflict with the US — with NMD offering the US immunity from a regional adversary’s deterrent. As the Russian researcher Prof. Paul Podvig put it, “the very fact that this unworkable system continues to be seriously advanced is the real proof that the US does not believe there is a serious threat” from the likes of N. Korea or Iran. His point was that if N. Korea
were taken as a serious threat to American safety, the US would get very busy and do something about it – diplomacy, political pressure, and money being the obvious mechanisms.  

George Lewis of MIT Security Studies cites Pentagon planners and Congressional NMD promoters as putting forward a different kind of rationale: as the long-term world leader, the US must face the possibility (indeed, probability) that it will one day find itself at war with a regional nuclear state. Only with a credible missile defence system in operation would the US be able to engage that adversary with a vigour beyond what deterrence would normally allow. With a credible missile defence capability in hand, the US could call an adversary’s bluff. China’s chief arms control negotiator, Sha Zukang, picked up the same theme when he told the New York Times on May 11 that US ballistic missile defence would neutralize China’s deterrent and would leave it dangerously vulnerable to bullying or attack: “The United States will feel it can attack anyone at any time, and that isn’t tolerable.” NMD would effectively scuttle China’s minimum deterrence posture.

Some NGO critics of NMD thus understand it to represent the pursuit of security based on a nuclear war-fighting strategy (in that NMD would mean that regional nuclear powers would no longer be able to deter US nuclear-use options), rather than either nuclear disarmament or non-proliferation.  Disarmament beyond projected START III levels is essentially precluded by
NMD, say the critics. And non-proliferation, while still pursued, cannot be relied on to prevent potential regional hegemonic powers from acquiring a nuclear deterrent, so the US has no choice but to acquire means of neutralizing any regional deterrent that may emerge.  Such a capability would clearly and minimally require the C-3 phase of the proposal (see below*) with its 250 interceptor missiles, which in turn would require either the violation of, withdrawal from, or amendment of the ABM Treaty – and it is the latter that is taken to be the meaning of the P5 reference to “strengthening” the ABM Treaty.

Russian diplomats told a briefing session with NGOs that Russia did not see the reference to “strengthening” of the ABM as code for changing it. They point out that Russian law now links START agreements to “the preservation of the ABM Treaty, as it now is.” The P5 statement is not a full expression of Russian policy and preferences, they said, but it is as much as they could get. Russia had insisted on an ABM reference in the statement, and understands the phrase, “…preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty…,” to mean that the Treaty is not to be amended and that what is strengthened is the Treaty’s prohibition of ballistic missile defences (they did not
offer an explanation of what strengthening was required or how that would be accomplished without amending it). Many NGOs thus fear that Russia will agree to a modified ABM Treaty, and Podvig, at another NGO event, said the deal which Russia faces is essentially this: “In exchange for making concessions on the ABM, Russia will be free to make concessions on START III.”   Even so, Russian public statements on the ABM at this NPT Review Conference have been uncompromising in their opposition to it.

China has pressed the NPT Conference to affirm the “inviolability and integrity of the ABM Treaty” and to call for a “moratorium on the NMD and advanced TMD,” as well as to include references to “preventing an arms race in outer space,” but given that these proposals are made in the context of objecting to other core issues like transparency, a moratorium on the production of fissile materials, and de-alerting and de-mating of nuclear weapons, China is not gaining many public allies for its positions.

Canadians will find it interesting that another of the key elements of the “strategy of suffocation” of the early 1980s, a ban on missile flight testing, is re-emerging as a credible idea – in the NGO arms control community at least (the other element of that strategy receiving ongoing attention being the ban on fissile material production). The Union of Concerned scientists explicitly calls for a ballistic missile ban. It is widely advocated in NGO forums that it is essential that the international community work toward the development of new norms and legal instruments to restrict or preclude use of strategic-range missiles for military purposes.  Missile early warning arrangements, launch notification commitments, and systems to monitor pre-launch status are advocated as steps in that direction which need to be pursued and multilateralized.  At the NPT Conference Canada and Russia have both called for more effective controls on missile proliferation. Canada has suggested “establishing universal norms to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible
behaviour involving missiles,” as well as linking cooperative early warning arrangements to “a multilateral, rules-based method of reducing ballistic missile threats from non-traditional sources.” Russia has announced an “initiative to establish a Global Missile and Missile Technologies Non-Proliferation Control System,” which it said is intended to complement, not replace, MTCR arrangements, and to also support efforts to curb ballistic missile threats from non-traditional sources.

As to those threats from non-traditional sources that the NMD system is supposed to address, NGOs gathering on the margins of the NPT Review Conference have been advocating that responses to such threats, real, or potential, or imagined, focus on robust diplomacy, economic pressures/incentives, and serious arms reduction/elimination talks with regional powers.

* The absolute minimum system that the NGOs say the US will seek to deploy will involve 250 ground-based interceptors on the American mainland (at current cost estimates of $60 billion):

Capability – 1 (C-1) to be deployed y 2005:
  20 interceptors based in central Alaska,
  -upgrades to 5 existing early warning radars in Alaska, east coast, west coast, Greenland, UK,
  -new x-brand (phased array) radar at Western tip of Aleutians,
  -battle management system;

C-2 (now part of an expanded C-1 architecture) to be deployed by 2007:
  -100 interceptors in Alaska,
  -additional x-band radars in Alaska, UK, and Greenland,
  -space-based infra-red detection system,
  -capable of intercepting a “few tens” of missiles with simple countermeasures, or a few missiles
    with sophisticated countermeasures;

C-3 to be deployed by 2010:
  -up to 250 interceptors in two sites, Alaska and North Dakota,
  -additional x-brand radars on both coasts and in S.Korea,
  -capable of intercepting a few tens of missiles with “complex penetration aids.”

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