Strategic Weapons: June 22, 2000


Construction schedules, the weather, the presidential elections, and treaty requirements are all combining to create a train wreck in the National Missile Defense System, but Clinton Administration Lawyers appear to have found a way out. The key point is the need for a new missile tracking radar on Shemya Island, in the Aleutians. Construction must begin in the Spring in order to be completed before the next winter, and President Clinton will all but certainly approve that construction at some point this fall. The Russians have long claimed that even breaking ground for such a radar system would constitute a violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty, since a nation starting construction would have a head start over its rival if the Treaty remained in force. Since the US must give six months notice that it plans to break the treaty, this would require President Clinton to cancel the 1972 ABM Treaty (and virtually destroy three decades of arms control) before he leaves office. He would rather leave this unpopular step (or a humiliating climb down, or an expensive trade-off to get Russian agreement) to his successor. But Administration lawyers have now concluded that pouring the concrete foundation will not violation the treaty (since the foundation could be used for anything) and that, perhaps, some other construction could also proceed before technically violating the 1972 accord. The boldest of three legal interpretations drafted by the lawyers would mean that the radar could be almost fully assembled but not activated or calibrated without violating the pact. It is logical to assume that Clinton will accept the second finding as this would push the decision date to cancel the ABM treaty (assuming that the Russians do not agree to a modification) to Feb 2001.--Stephen V Cole


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