End of arms control

Published : Jul 22, 2000 00:00 IST

The NMD system could fall foul of the provisions of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and that could spell serious trouble for the global disarmament process.


IN the twisted logic of nuclear exterminism, self-defence is unethical and the only assurance of peace and strategic stability is the shared vulnerability of adversaries to mutual attack. The United States has been instrumental in crafting this deadly lo gic and foisting it on the world. Its effort now to break out of a trap of its own creation can only unsettle global strategic equations and cause another deadly spiral in the arms race.

The modern saga of the National Missile Defence (NMD) system begins in the early-1980s, when Edward Teller, the politically canny nuclear physicist scarred by memories of war and occupation in his native Hungary, sold U.S. President Ronald Reagan the beg uiling doctrine of "assured survival". An insane momentum was sweeping the two principal adversaries of the Cold War into a renewed build-up of nuclear weapons, locking them ever more firmly into the macabre logic of "mutually assured destruction", or MA D. Teller's hallucinations about a space shield that would use the supposed prowess of the X-ray laser to protect the U.S. from thousands of incoming Soviet warheads, seemed in the context an emancipatory vision.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, concluded between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972, enshrined MAD as the ultimate protection against nuclear warfare. The underlying principle was simple: in the nuclear domain, a good offence can overwhelm a ny defence. This was the theorem that U.S. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara had propounded in 1965, when the Soviet Union began a limited missile defence deployment around Moscow. At a high-level meeting that year, McNamara put the brutal logic of nucle ar exterminism squarely to his Soviet interlocutors: the attempt to fortify Moscow against missile attack would compel the U.S. to multiply vastly its deployment of warheads targeted at the Soviet capital. The Soviets were outraged. Self-defence is ethic ally a defensible concept, they argued, while nuclear aggression is not. They may have managed to convince the world, but not the U.S.

In the domestic political context of the U.S., the Soviet attempt to build a missile defence provided the rationale for another dramatic increase in nuclear deployments. The earlier fabrications of the "missile gap", which purported to show a growing Sov iet superiority in Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICMBs), had been exposed by about 1963. The "missile gap" scare began in 1960 when the Soviet Union was yet to deploy an ICBM. By 1963, it transpired, the Soviet Union had less than 3 per cent of t he ICBM deployments that the Pentagon had predicted it would have. Clearly, the flourishing nexus involving defence contractors, the military and U.S. political interests needed another justification for a relentless arms build-up. The ballistic missile defence around Moscow was rendered in Pentagon depictions as one that would cover the entire territory of the Soviet Union. In truth, the missile defence system around Moscow was soon to be rendered obsolete and scrapped. But for a while it provided the rationale for another upward twist in the U.S. nuclear arms build-up.

Relative parity in strategic nuclear forces was established between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by the late-1960s. For nuclear strategists who had based their calculations on a credible first strike capability and the doctrine of "massive retaliation", this was an untenable situation. Two kinds of technical responses were fashioned to this: the Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile system.

Just when it seemed that the Soviet Union would have no option but to multiply its arsenal of ICBMs in order to preserve a credible retaliatory capacity, there came a rare interval of sanity. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and the ABM Treaty were signed during this temporary cessation of verbal and doctrinal hostilities.

THE 1970s represented a rough period for U.S. global hegemony, with the military defeat in Vietnam and the liberation of Angola and Mozambique from Portuguese colonial rule. In 1979, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan signalled the start of a second ph ase in the Cold War. And Reagan rode to power in 1980 with the promise to oversee the resurgence of U.S. might.

Ironically, the upshot of Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative, or "Star Wars" as it was dubbed in recognition of its aura of fantasy, was to impart a certain momentum to arms control efforts. Pragmatists within the U.S. administration were able to use the imminence of a U.S. missile shield to argue the case for limiting the build-up of aggressive nuclear capabilities. And with the Soviet side proving eager to check the alarming arms spiral, the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (or START-I) was co ncluded in 1986.

The X-ray laser and its technical marvels were of course a curious amalgam of wishful thinking, speculation and downright deception. Work on Star Wars continued fitfully, but its wildly exaggerated claims - most of which, it has gradually emerged, were c oncocted - could not withstand the growing reality that global opinion was pushing the main nuclear weapons states towards disarmament. START-II negotiations began between Reagan's successor George Bush and the Soviet Union's last President, Mikhail Gorb achev, in 1990. The treaty was finally signed in 1993 between Bush and President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation.

In the early-1990s, there seemed to be sufficient momentum in the global disarmament dialogue. Though Star Wars research continued to consume an annual budget in the range of $4 billion, the missile defence system remained a remote prospect and there was no occasion to test its conformity with the existing array of international treaties and obligations. But with the U.S. presidential decision on deployment now imminent, there is renewed concern that the NMD system could fall foul of the provisions of t he ABM Treaty. That spells serious trouble for the global disarmament process as whole, which has been stuck in a rut for the last half-decade or more.

Within the U.S. the reversal of the momentum begins in 1994, with the dramatic successes secured by the Republican right-wing in the congressional polls. In his pompously titled "Contract with America", that was a virtual manifesto for the Republican Par ty in 1994, Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, called for the early deployment of a missile defence system to protect American territory and interests worldwide. In the following years, the Republican dominated U.S. Sen ate was to take every credible arms control agreement hostage, in pursuit of the missile defence system.

START-II was ratified by the Senate in January 1996, since it seemed to freeze the Russian side into a state of strategic inferiority - for instance, it ruled out multiple warheads on land-based missiles, thus neutralising the Russian advantage in this f amily of weapons, while safeguarding the U.S. supremacy in sea-launched missiles. Partly in resentment at this, though mainly because of the tumultuous aftermath of the Soviet disintegration, the Russian Duma seemed to be delaying its ratification indefi nitely. In 1997, a series of amendments were worked out to START-II in order to assuage Russian anxieties. The protocols that were appended to START-II relaxed the time-frame for its entry into force and included an "agreement in principle" to launch neg otiations towards START-III.

Concurrently, a few amendments were made in the ABM Treaty by way of elaboration and clarification. First, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine were recognised as "successor states" to the Soviet Union in terms of ABM Treaty obligations. And second, t he distinction in technical terms was established between strategic and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD). The first of these stemmed naturally from the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. It is, according to most legal experts, a mere matter of "fact and agreement" - a routine executive decision that is not subject to ratification by any legislative body.

The second amendment allowing for a TMD deployment is more controversial. It was meant to secure for the U.S. the freedom to deploy the so-called "Theatre High Altitude Area Defence" system (or THAAD), which in the mid-1990s seemed the feasible limit of a ballistic missile defence. This remains technologically an entity distinct from the proposed NMD system. THAAD would have a restricted territorial scope, being confined to the defence of key military installations and missile sites. It would not, moreo ver, involve the militarisation of outer space. For the modest results achieved from all its Star Wars research, this seemed to the U.S. in the mid-1990s the limit to missile defence ambitions.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton transmitted the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the Senate for ratification. It was promptly taken hostage by the Republican right-wing led by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms. In truding into an area where he had little authority, Helms demanded that both the START-II protocols and the ABM Treaty amendment be sent to the Senate for ratification. The idea was obviously to kill both the treaties and begin a new round of militarisat ion. Clinton resisted, with the final result that the CTBT was unceremoniously rejected by the U.S. Senate last October. Far from securing the two-thirds majority required for ratification, the CTBT in the moment of its demise was denied even the dignity of a simple majority.

The Duma was meanwhile dragging its feet over the ratification of START-II. At a moment when action seemed imminent, the U.S. recklessly provoked Russian anger by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation right to its doorsteps. Overcoming these r esentments, the Duma scheduled a discussion on START-II for December 1998, only to call it off when the U.S., in league with the U.K., launched its infamous air strikes against Iraq. Another opportunity for ratification came in April 1999, only to be scu ppered by the American aggression against Yugoslavia - a campaign of indiscriminate and relentless aerial bombardment which engendered a sense of siege within Russia.

CRITICS of the proposed NMD have identified the three Cs of contemporary U.S. politics that are driving the decision on its deployment: conservative ideology, Clintonian cowardice and corporate influence. The Clinton administration's capitulation began i n 1996 and has continued since at a rapid pace. In January this year, the U.S.' principal arms control negotiator presented a proposal to his Russian counterparts, seeking a series of amendments to the ABM Treaty. John Holum, senior adviser in the State Department, assured Russia that the NMD system would be a modest deployment which would be worthless against Russia's strategic nuclear might. To lend credibility to this case, he assured the Russians that they could continue to maintain nuclear warheads numbering between 2,000 and 2,500 in a state of high alert.

Considering that Russia has signalled its willingness to reduce warheads deployment to the range of 1,000 under START III, these are decidedly modest horizons. Equally alarming is the U.S. willingness to tolerate indefinitely a situation of "launch on wa rning" readiness, which greatly multiplies the risk of accidental nuclear war.

On May 4, Russia finally ratified START-II. This is rightly seen as a major signal by the newly installed President, Vladimir Putin, of his willingness to take realistic steps towards rejuvenating the flagging momentum of arms control. But the treaty's e ntry iy into force cannot yet be taken for granted. Apart from U.S. Senate approval for the START-II protocols, which the Duma was entitled to demand, a further twist has been imparted by the Duma's insistence that the ABM Treaty amendments of 1997 too s hould be ratified by the U.S. This is a most unlikely eventuality, since Helms and his confederates in the Republican right-wing have already proven their disdain for any arms control measures.

The NMD proposal loomed large in the recently concluded Sixth Review Conference of States Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (or NPT RevCon VI). The U.S. was isolated on this issue, with even allies such as Canada and the European states ins isting that arms control treaties should not be reversed in response to contingent circumstances. The situation was only retrieved by a miracle of draftsmanship when the five nuclear weapons states agreed on a joint declaration, affirming their commitmen t to "preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons".

The final declaration at NPT RevCon VI called for the full implementation of START-II and the early commencement of the START III dialogue. It also underscored the need to secure an early entry into force of the CTBT. None of these seems even remotely po ssible at this stage. Apart from the stalemate in the START process, China has been vocal in asserting that a U.S. decision on NMD deployment could seriously undermine its commitment to the CTBT.

The bleak scenario for arms control is further accentuated by the complete inactivity of the Conference on Disarmament (C.D.) since the CTBT was agreed in 1996. The U.S. is eager to begin negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). Departing from its principled position that the proposed treaty should include in its scope all existing inventories of nuclear fissile material, India has narrowed its scope to the elimination of future production. This has perhaps won it a junior position in th e global nuclear bargain orchestrated by the U.S., and quite possibly would enable it to freeze its neighbour Pakistan into a position of strategic disadvantage. But India's gambit has been in vain, since China has argued forcefully that the militarisati on of outer space and total nuclear disarmament should merit higher priorities in the C.D. negotiations. With consensus being a rule of procedure in the C.D., which is the United Nations' only standing body dealing with arms control issues, there seems l ittle likelihood of the deadlock ending in the near future.

"Massive retaliation" was the declared U.S. strategic doctrine in the years following the Second World War. Any Soviet aggression in Europe would be met with a devastating riposte that would lay waste its entire territory. In order to keep this insane mo mentum going, U.S. strategists conjured up various kinds of "missile gap'' scares right through the 1950s and 1960s. With the end of the Cold War, a fresh bogey had to be found and these came in the shape of the "rogue states" or as they have been recent ly rechristened, "the states of concern". Strategic doctrine, clearly, is an infinitely flexible entity. And as long as the interests of the flourishing military-industrial nexus are driving its articulation, there seem no identifiable limits on the exce sses it can subject the world to.

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