Missile defence: The price of US security

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PCRC Background Briefing - July 2001

The United States administration is threatening world security and wasting billions of dollars on an anti-ballistic weapons system dogged by controversy and failure – directly affecting the people of the Pacific.

On 15 July 2001, the Pentagon conducted another missile defence tests from its base on Kwajalein Atoll, the Marshall Islands. Although deemed a success by the US government, it was in fact a tragedy for peace, the environment and the worldwide struggle for a just and equitable world. Despite widespread international opposition, the Bush administration is stepping up its bid to have a limited missile defence system operating before 2004. Most US allies and analysts believe the missile defence network would only escalate an arms race by prompting other nations to build-up arms reserves in response. Many remain highly sceptical of whether a missile defence system could provide affordable protection or work reliably, given repeated test failures.

President George W. Bush has also declared his readiness to unilaterally withdraw from the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia, sparking fears worldwide that such a move that would unravel the entire nuclear non-proliferation regime and substantially increase nuclear threats. Already, the US Government has refused to ratify treaties of major concern for the Pacific islands, including the protocols to the Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Missile defence is provocative, dangerous and costly. Its active pursuit contradicts any commitment to enhance international security through comprehensive disarmament and the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. The threat to the security of the Pacific islands comes from climate change and sea-level rise, and toxic pollution from nuclear warhead and missile testing. The US government should allocate funds towards protecting the environment, not the development of new missile technologies. The Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, as the secretariat for the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement, calls on Pacific Island governments to ensure our region is not used as a testing ground for weapons of mass destruction.

This PCRC briefing paper sets out the background to the current missile defence program, how it affects the Marshall Islands and its destablising impact on the world. It suggests how Pacific Island governments can ensure their own peoples' security. It includes the following:

President Bush's missile defence plans

On 1 May 2001, in a speech delivered at the National Defence University in Washington US President George W. Bush reaffirmed his administration's commitment to building a "layered" missile defence system. He also called for cuts in the US nuclear arsenal and declared his readiness to pull out of the 30-year-old ABM Treaty. He said "a new framework (is needed) that allows us to build missile defences to counter the different threats of today's world."

To justify greater military spending and prop up major aerospace and military contractors, the new anti-missile system is supposed to deter a threat of missile attack from a "rogue nation" like Iraq or North Korea, or a deliberate or accidental missile launch by China or Russia.

On 12 July, US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul D. Wolfowitz gave Congress its first detailed description of the program, which goes well beyond the ground-based interceptor system pursued earlier by the Clinton administration. Mr Bush's plan includes sea-launched missiles and lasers mounted on airplanes - both of which are prohibited by the ABM Treaty. The administration also plans to begin clearing trees next month for a new test facility at Fort Greely, Alaska, as part of a plan to expand the Pacific "test bed" for missile intercept tests.

Mr Bush's more aggressive testing effort calls for US$8 billion in funding for missile defence for the 2002 financial year alone. Dr Gordon Adams, a security specialist and former director of the US Congress Office of Management and Budget, says a ballistic missile defence program could cost between US$60 billion and $200 billion.

On 15 July, the US Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation (BMDO) announced it had successfully completed a test of a planned intercept of an intercontinental ballistic missile target. The BMDO described the 15 July test as part of "an aggressive research and development program that will lead to the defence of the American homeland as soon as possible against the real threats of the 21st century".

However, BMDO director, Air Force Lieutenant General Ronald T. Kadish, acknowledged that the test (involving a dummy warhead and decoy balloon launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, and a prototype interceptor launched from Kwajalein Missile Range), fell far short of simulating a real attack, which could conceivably involve multiple warheads and dozens of balloon decoys. The US government hailed the test as "successful", to maintain it’s momentum in the face of widespread opposition to the tests. But within days, it was clear that the test was conducted using aids that would not be available in a real conflict or missile launch (the anti-missile weapon was able to destroy a test warhead in space partly because a beacon on the target signalled its location during much of the flight! )

Of four tests over the last two years, the July 2001 test was only the second time the Pentagon has intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile warhead. In October 1999, the US conducted its first test of a prototype National Missile Defence system. A mock nuclear warhead, launched from a missile fired from California, was knocked out of the sky by an interceptor missile launched from Kwajalein Atoll. However, a second test in January 2000 and a third in July 2000 both failed to hit the target, in spite of tens of millions of dollars worth of high-technology support systems. Each test is estimated to have cost almost US$100 million.

These failures convinced then-US President Bill Clinton not to proceed with the deployment of a national missile defence system. The Pentagon has scheduled another 20 tests by 2005 - with the next attempt planned for October 2001.

Ballistic Missile Defence

The US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) program is a scaled-down version of the Reagan Administration’s 1983 Strategic Defence Initiative ("Star Wars"), which aimed to establish a space-based system that would protect the United States from a massive Soviet missile attack. Star Wars never got off the ground, even after 15 years and more than $50 billion of research costs. Unlike President Reagan’s 1980s vision, however, BMD is not capable of protecting the United States from an all-out nuclear attack – it is supposedly directed against missiles fired by "rogue" states.

Under Mr Reagan, the United States established the US Space Command in 1985 – a joint Army, Navy and Air Force military command – to co-ordinate Star Wars research and testing. With the revived program, the Clinton Administration established a new military command on 1 October 1997 – the US Army Space and Missile Defence Command. The BMDO provides technical support to the US Army space program.

The BMD program is designed to include two elements:

a) The National Missile Defence (NMD) system that, if deployed, aims to shield all 50 US states from a limited long-range missile strike.

b) The Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) system is designed to neutralise a strike on US forces or their allies by destroying incoming short-range enemy missiles. It is designed to operate in a particular theatre of military operations, such as East Asia or the Middle East.

The vast sums allocated for BMD merely adds to the billions spent since Mr Reagan launched his Star Wars project. All this money has not led to the creation of a single effective system. It will take far more testing, and substantially increased budgets, to deploy a system that can be shown to be reliable and effective. In spite of all this effort and expense, test failures have highlighted major problems with the missile technology. Even US government officials have criticised the NMD program.

An August 2000 report from the Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, only recently released to Congress, concludes that testing on the missile defence program had suffered too many failures and it would be unrealistic to have a system deployed by 2005, a year later than currently proposed by the Bush administration. According to US lawmaker, Representative John Tierney (Democrats-Massachusetts), the internal report "highlights severe deficiencies" in the NMD program.

Another classified report by a Pentagon-appointed panel of experts raises numerous warning flags about the current plan for a missile defence shield. The report cites problems with the booster rocket for interceptor missiles, doubts about whether the interceptor can distinguish an enemy missile from decoys, and concern that the timetable for constructing a working system in five years is unrealistic.

By the Pentagon's own admission, all flight tests have been rigged to hide a fundamental flaw: the system cannot distinguish between enemy warheads and decoys. None of the tests address the full range of countermeasures or decoys that an enemy would use to try to outwit an antimissile system.

Meanwhile, the threatened deployment of NMD and TMD is causing problems throughout the Pacific Islands and Asia. The money spent by the United States on missile defence is encouraging other nations to improve their missile capacity and countermeasures, deepening the arms race and insecurity at a time when many people are looking to the abolition of nuclear weapons as the best way of increasing international security.

The Marshall Islands as testing ground

In the 1940s, Marshall Islanders were evacuated from their homes on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls to make way for a series of US nuclear tests. The islanders were asked to move "for the good of mankind and to end all world wars", as the United States tested its atomic and hydrogen bombs.

Today, Marshall Islanders are living with the radioactive legacies of the 67 US atmospheric tests conducted between 1946 and 1958. The relationship has brought the Marshallese people much suffering: illness and death from radiation exposure, displacement, and the destruction of a self-sufficient existence (which the US has failed to replace with any sustainable alternative).

For decades now, the high-tech US Army base at Kwajalein Atoll has been at the heart of America's missile and missile defence programs. Kwajalein is made up of nearly 100 coral islands surrounding a 2,300-square-kilometre lagoon (the largest lagoon in the world). Under US Army control since 1964, the US Army Kwajalein Atoll / Kwajalein Missile Range (USAKA/KMR) lease covers 11 islands in the atoll. The Kwajalein bases are a US$4 billion complex, including radar tracking, intelligence collection and missile launching facilities.

Because of its tiny population and isolation from any continental land mass, the atoll and surrounding seas mean paradise for weapons testers and remains central to the testing and development of new missiles. Kwajalein lagoon's shallow waters make for easy retrieval of test objects, and the very deep surrounding ocean allows secure disposal of missiles and warheads.

"We think all testing should come to Kwajalein Missile Range…Out here, they don't have cities to grow and encroach, and that's what makes this place an unduplicated national asset," said US Army Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Jones.

The Compact of Free Association and US-RMI negotiations

The US won control of the Marshall Islands from Japan in 1944 and has exercised broad control over it ever since. It administered the territory under a UN mandate until 1986, when the Marshall Islands and US entered into a "Compact of Free Association" - securing America's use of the atoll through 15-year renewable agreements.

Under the Compact, Washington takes responsibility for the country's defence, in return for the right to deny access to third countries. The US also provides disaster relief and various other services.

The US Government has fiercely protected its control over defence and security issues under the Compact. In December 1997, the US Government lodged complaints with the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) Government when the Marshall Islands failed to consult it before signing the Ottawa Convention to ban landmines (a treaty the United States has refused to sign).

The Compact's economic provisions were recently under re-negotiation. The US and Marshall Islands met in Majuro on 10-11 July, but only the issue of overall economic support for the Marshalls was up for discussion as the US has guaranteed access to the Kwajalein Missile Range for another 15 years.

As of 2000, lease payments to the Kwajalein Atoll Development Authority and landowners amounted to $13 million a year - much of which is paid to former Marshall Islands President and High Chief, Imata Kabua.

The RMI Government has also been lobbying the US Congress for extra compensation for islanders irradiated by the nuclear tests. Since 1995, the US Government has released previously classified documents, which show that 20 out of 22 populated atolls in the Marshall Islands were affected by radioactive fallout from the tests, rather than the four atolls it previously recognised.

The Nuclear Claims Tribunal in the Marshall Islands has promised compensation to hundreds of Marshallese still living with the radioactive legacy of the tests, but one-third of those due to receive compensation have already died. In October 1999, the Marshall Islands and the United States began renegotiation of their Compact of Free Association. However a new Marshall Islands government was elected in November 1999, headed by President Kessai Note. In September 2000, the new Government lodged a petition with Congress, seeking increased compensation for the health and environmental effects of the 67 US nuclear tests conducted at Enewetak and Bikini Atolls. With each ballistic missile test costing US$100 million, the US government is wasting billions of dollars on missile testing, but refuses just compensation for people irradiated by the atmospheric nuclear tests between 1946-58.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Marshall Islanders staged "sail-ins" to occupy the islands in Kwajalein Atoll, in protest over US failure to compensate them for the loss of land and damage to the environment. One of the protests, "Operation Homecoming", in 1982 lasted four months, with Kwajalein landowners demanding the right to return to their home islands.

US 'security' at Marshallese expense

'Security' for the US comes at a high price for the Marshallese. Those from lightly inhabited atolls like Kwajalein and Bikini have been relocated to badly overcrowded islands like Ebeye and Enniburr, where cholera and malnutrition is common.

Ebeye, once described as "the slum of the Pacific", today houses more than 12,000 people on less than 100 acres. About 1,000 people have been relocated to Enniburr, an island about the size of a football field, where there is no electricity, running water or shops. Most live from day to day on what is left over of the $1.1 billion paid by the US under the lease agreement.

"We must respect the terms of our agreements with the United States, but the United States needs to recognise what has happened here, too," said RMI Foreign Minister Alvin Jacklick. "Ebeye and Enniburr have become the worst ghettos of the Pacific, and the conditions there are barely humane."

In a recent report on the Marshall Islands, Bank of Hawaii economist Wali M. Osman said government reforms promoted by the US, the Asian Development Bank and other donor countries and agencies had worked in large countries, with developed economies, but were inappropriate to conditions in the small island state. He said they had, in effect, reduced the standard of living and caused "drastic changes".

Of those displaced, only 1,200 Marshallese are employed as domestic servants, cooks, maintenance workers and groundkeepers for US personnel on Kwajalein Island, commuting by boat from Ebeye Island each day.

"There used to be protests about the situation here," said a cafeteria worker. "But the Americans control the biggest island in this atoll, and they decide who gets jobs, and how much we get paid, too. We know there is something wrong here, but we feel like a mouse up against an elephant. What can we do?"

The impact of a new arms race

Arms control critics are opposed to the NMD program for a number of reasons:

Mr Bush has signalled the US intends to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, thereby making it the first country ever to withdraw from an arms control treaty. The treaty, signed with the Soviet Union in 1972, bans both countries from deploying a multi-layered missile defence system, or a nationwide shield against long-range missiles.

The risk of non-proliferation regimes being undermined is far greater than a missile attack from a so-called rogue state. Roelf Ekeus, Sweden's ambassador to the United States and former head of the UN Special Commission for arms inspections in Iraq has warned: "As missile defence gathers speed, what is the political impact? It gives the impression that the United States is settling down to live with nuclear weapons. The risk is that more and more [countries] just give up the hope [of non-proliferation], which I think is the greater threat."

In November 1999, Russia and China introduced a United Nations resolution demanding strict compliance with the ABM treaty. Signalling strong opposition to US efforts to change the treaty, the resolution recognises the historic role of the ABM Treaty "as the cornerstone for maintaining international peace and security and strategic stability," and reaffirms "its continued validity and relevance, especially in the current international situation."

China congratulated the UN for endorsing the resolution saying: "In recent years, some countries have made great efforts to develop national missile defence plans to strive for their own absolute security and short-term strategic advantages. These countries have proposed changing the ABM Treaty and even threatened to withdraw from it. These actions would damage strategic balance and stability, damage the progress of nuclear disarmament, shake the foundation of nuclear non-proliferation and even cause a new nuclear arms race, including in outer space"

The US Senate's rejection in 1999 of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a crucial step toward nuclear disarmament, is also a clear statement that the US Government sees rearmament as a priority and seeks more nuclear weapons in US hands, not fewer. Mr Bush has long opposed the treaty, arguing that it does not further his country's non-proliferation policy or strengthen national security.

International opposition

The US faces an uphill battle to win foreign support for its missile defence plan. In June, Mr Bush faced strong opposition when he met NATO allies in Brussels to follow up efforts by US Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and US Secretary of State Colin Powell to sell his missile defence plans to European governments.

Many European allies see the construction of a missile defence network as a provocative act that would escalate the global arms race by prodding Russia, China and other nations to develop offensive weapons that could overwhelm any defence shield.

At the meeting, French President Jacques Chirac told Mr Bush he believed there was a "need to preserve strategic balances, of which the ABM Treaty is a pillar". After the meeting, President Chirac said a missile shield represented a "fantastic incentive to proliferate" weapons as hostile states would build more arms in retaliation. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany was also sceptical at the meeting. "We still see a host of issues that need to be clarified, and therefore we must and indeed will be continuing intensive discussions on this subject," he said.

Meanwhile, Russia has suggested it will build up its nuclear arsenal in response - which would involve refitting its missiles with multiple warheads - and said the 15 July test of jeopardised all previous agreements on nuclear disarmament.

It has only served to aggravate strained relations between China and the US, already made tense by the accidental US bombing of China's Embassy in Belgrade, and the recent US surveillance plane incident in Chinese airspace. China has expressed alarm over the US decision, and experts argue it will impact negatively on the security situation of the Asia-Pacific region.

The only Western ally to support Mr Bush's plan is Australia's Howard government - and the country's Pine Gap joint defence facility is likely to be used as part of the early warning infrastructure of the NMD program.

The need to revisit Rarotonga

The US has shown clear disregard for the concerns of the region by failing to ratify the protocols of the Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ). On Hiroshima Day, 1985, at the height of the US-Soviet Cold War, Pacific leaders adopted the treaty, which expressed Pacific peoples' opposition to nuclear testing and the growing nuclear arms race.

Protocols of the treaty prohibit the use, or threat of use, of any nuclear devices within the treaty zone. The treaty also prohibits the testing of nuclear weapons within the zone. It represented the first significant arms control agreement in the South Pacific region and provided a symbolic and practical precedent for other regions. Current parties to the treaty are: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. All five nuclear weapon powers - Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States - have also signed the treaty's protocols, but the US is the only one not to have yet ratified its signature.

Importantly, the three Micronesian states that have a Compact of Free Association with the US - the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau - are not signatories to the treaty, and the treaty zone does not cover their territory.

In the post-Cold War context of reduced ideological tensions, heightened awareness of proliferation threats, and new regional forums, there are new opportunities to strengthen the Rarotonga Treaty. The treaty could be amended, or Pacific governments could negotiate follow-on regional agreements that would outlaw all weapons of mass or indiscriminate destruction. Following are several steps that could be taken to strengthen the Rarotonga SPNFZ Treaty:

1) Convene a review conference to assess progress in the treaty’s implementation, consider amendments, and recommend further initiatives.

2) Extend the treaty zone north of the Equator to formally include the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau. The inclusion of the Marshall Islands would be particularly appropriate given the past history of US atmospheric testing in these islands. Although the legal or political necessity of gaining US approval may continue to be a constraint, the US itself signed the treaty in 1996.

4) End missile testing in the treaty zone by strengthening of the provisions (or inclusion of an additional protocol) to prohibit long-range nuclear-capable missile delivery systems; and addition of a further protocol preventing any country from testing missiles in the zone.

5) Ban other weapons of mass destruction within the SPNFZ zone, including chemical and biological weapons, antipersonnel mines, and fuel air explosives.

6) Ensure that the US government ratifies the protocols of the treaty. Although the US administration signed the three protocols of the Rarotonga Treaty in March 1996, the US Senate has not yet ratified it. (All other major nuclear powers have signed and ratified the relevant protocols.) Pacific governments, in the context of UN disarmament initiatives, should work to ensure that the US government ratifies the Treaty.

While the agenda of such a review would be a matter for regional negotiation, and consultations with relevant government and non-government organisations, the above issues should be considered in light of the Bush administration's plans for the Pacific.

Until the nations of the Pacific take such a move as to strengthen the provisions of the Rarotonga Treaty, the region will continue to be used as a testing ground for foreign military forces. Meaning the people of the Pacific, many of who are still waiting for compensation for nuclear tests carried out decades ago, are being put at risk again.

The Pacific Islands Forum and Pacific governments should take a strong stand against the proliferation of new missile technologies and nuclear weapons. The Pacific governments should restate their opposition to nuclear proliferation, and call for the abolition of nuclear weapons as the best way to achieve international security:

1) the US Government should end ballistic missile tests in the Pacific, and provide economic support for those Marshall Islanders affected by the end of testing at Kwajalein Atoll.

2) the nuclear weapons states should acknowledge their responsibility for the health and environmental impacts of past nuclear tests. They should introduce or extend programs for monitoring, clean up and rehabilitation of former nuclear test sites. They should also compensate former test site workers, civilian and military personnel at the sites and neighbouring local communities, and continue long-term funding for the necessary programs of monitoring, clean-up and rehabilitation and compensation.

3) The nuclear weapon states should immediately begin negotiations for comprehensive nuclear disarmament, as they promised at the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference.

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