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Key Issues Missile Defense Issues Statement of Henry Kissinger on the ABM Treaty

Statement of the Honorable Henry A. Kissinger before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
May 26, 1999

I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to testify on the ABM treaty and missile defense.

Let me begin with some qualifications. I am not a technical expert. I have not had the opportunity to review the provisions of the treaty in detail. But I have thought about the political and strategic implications of missile defense and the impact of the ABM treaty on it. And the ABM treaty was negotiated under my general aegis during the Nixon Administration. Therefore let me explain my general view about missile defense, how the ABM treaty came to be negotiated, and where in my

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view we are now in a general sense with respect to it.

I was always uneasy about the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. The first responsibility of government is to provide for the security of the people. To the extent the U.S. has the ability to provide for the defense of the country, it would be a dereliction of duty not to do so. I cannot accept the proposition that we contribute to peace by exposing our population to vast and foreseeable dangers as an act of policy. I cannot imagine what an American President would say to the American public if there should be an attack, and if he would have to explain that he did nothing to prevent or defeat the resulting catastrophe. I think the legitimacy of government would be threatened if such a condition existed. So, for all these reasons, I have been an advocate of missile defense ever since I entered government.

Then how did the ABM treaty come about? When President Nixon came into office, one of his first acts was to propose an ABM system. It was based on much more elementary technology than now exists, but it provided for twelve defense sites circling the United States and was put forward with the argument that it would disabuse the Soviets of any temptations to risk a limited nuclear attack, prevent third country attacks, and protect against an accidental missile launch.

But then we faced various oppositions from groups dedicated to the theory of mutual destruction. One group maintained that the ABM system would not work. Another group said that it would be destabilizing. Though the criticisms contradicted each other, they affected the Congress. As a result, in every Congressional session, the number of defense sites was reduced. By 1971, Congress had whittled the proposed ABM system down to two defense sites. And it was clear that these last two sites would be under pressure in every budgetary cycle thereafter.

Limiting an ABM system to only two sites did not make any strategic sense. And by that point, the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not want to spend scarce resources on what they considered to be an essentially useless enterprise. We negotiated the ABM treaty because we wanted to get something for what the U.S. Congress was going to do anyway--kill the ABM program. The Soviet Union was expanding its military strength and our Congress was cutting back U.S. military strength. And it was under those conditions that we thought we would put a ceiling on the ABM in order to limit the Soviet ABM system, which Moscow had already started to build. We also used the ABM treaty to extract concessions from the Soviet Union in the SALT talks.

I never felt comfortable with the ABM treaty. But there was nothing we could do about it because the defense budget was being cut deeper each year by Congress. It was not really until the advent of the Reagan Administration that a plausible technology for strategic defense existed. As soon as Reagan put forward his 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative, I supported it. And I continue to support a missile defense for the same reasons.

When President Reagan put forward his SDI proposal, a group of concerned scientists came to see me in order to get me to join them in opposition to it. And they made the traditional arguments--first, that it was destabilizing and secondly, it wouldn't work--despite my difficulty in grasping how it can be both. When I asked them to explain to me the mechanics of how and why they believed it would not work at various levels of attack, it was plain that at a fairly low level of attack involving several hundred warheads, it worked fairly well, but became degraded only as more and more warheads were added to the attack.

That seemed to me to strengthen and not weaken the case for missile defense. In the absence of missile defense, penetration becomes totally predictable--a simple question of mathematics. But it is different even when there exists even a light missile defense. Since the aggressor does not know which of his missiles will get through, as the threshold rises the inhibitions to an attack must also rise. And in the Soviet case, I always felt that if they knew that they would have to launch several hundred missiles in order to get a significant number through the missile defenses, that was a lot safer for America than if they knew that any missile that they launched was bound to get there.

The circumstances that existed when the treaty was drafted and agreed to were notably different from the situation today. Specifically, the current threats, as set forth by our Ballistic Missile Threat Commission, have moved us into a new national security environment, one that was not even considered, let alone anticipated when the ABM treaty was signed. The country that signed it, the USSR, has disappeared as a legal entity. Missile technologies have evolved in sophistication. The acceleration in the proliferation of ballistic missile and WMD technologies are putting capabilities in the hands of nations that were not even remotely considered to be candidates to possess such destructive power when the agreement was concluded.

One of the reasons ballistic missiles are attractive to so many countries is that there are currently no defenses against them. They are almost guaranteed to arrive at their targets. Given their destructive power, they are terror weapons by their mere existence in the absence of deployed defenses. History teaches that weakness is provocative and, in a real sense, the absence of missile defense provokes others into seeking such weapons.

The threat to the U.S. from missile proliferation is real and growing. This was underscored last year by the Rumsfeld Commission, which stated that the threat posed by a number of hostile Third World states "is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community." Further, the Commission stated that "the U.S. might well have little or no warning before operational deployment" of missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory by these same states.

Secretary of Defense Cohen confirmed the findings of the Rumsfeld Commission on January 20, 1999, when he stated, "... we are affirming that there is a threat, and the threat is growing and that we expect it will soon pose a danger not only to our troops overseas but also to Americans here at home."

All of us need to recognize that at some point, and admittedly some will differ on where this point is, the ABM treaty constrains the nation's missile defense programs to an intolerable degree. Secretary Cohen, also on January 20, stated that the Administration recognizes this fact and will require modifications to the treaty. He also suggested that if an agreement on this issue, presumably with the Russians or others, could not be obtained, then the U.S. would consider withdrawal.

I share this view. Quite apart from the legal arguments that are made by experts as to the possibility that with the end of the USSR the treaty technically may no longer be in force, the treaty was signed with an eye to an environment that simply does not exist today.

For these reasons, I believe that it is strategically and morally necessary to build a missile defense. Strategically, because of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the missile technology to deliver them. Morally, because the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, which I have opposed in my writings for at least thirty years, is bankrupt. It may have had a limited theoretical sense in a two-power nuclear world, but in a multinuclear world, it is reckless.

There seems to be an emerging consensus regarding theater missile defense which I favor--though its specific geographic applications require further consideration.

I would also favor the deployment of a nationwide missile defense system as soon as technologically possible. An impressive array of technical options cannot be adequately explored until we solve the problem of ABM treaty restrictions on development and testing. We need to find a way to end the restrictions the ABM treaty impose on the research, development, testing and deployment of missile defense systems as soon as possible.

I have no clear view how to handle the ABM treaty, except that I would not let it stand in the way. First, it is possible to argue that the ABM treaty was made with an entity that no longer exists. It is also possible to use the abrogation clause in the ABM treaty, but I think that is not the key issue.

The key issue is whether it should be a national policy to build a missile defense. The battle lines are already forming along the same issue--whether the missile defense system will work. There always will be those who make the claim that a tremendous system is coming along five years down the road, at which point, those same people will argue that there is an even better one coming along five years after that. So there will never be a "right time" for deployment.

Therefore, we need to get about the task of developing and deploying ballistic missile defenses that are the most cost effective and the most technically capable of deterring and defending against these new threats, and doing so without inhibitions from the treaty. There is ample time to conduct the necessary negotiations since the shape of the system is still under consideration, and no violation would occur until deployment. There are two qualifications: (1) Research must proceed immediately and not be delayed pending negotiations, and (2) Deployment must take place as soon as a system is chosen. To the extent the Russians do not agree to the necessary amendments, the alternative is to exercise our right, as provided in the treaty, to extend six months' notification that we intend to withdraw from the treaty.

May 26, 1999