US Anti-Missile Test Fails Despite Fixing

THERE was much expectation and discussion surrounding the July 8 test by the US of its anti-missile system which is to form the basis of the proposed National Missile Defence (NMD) system of the USA. The test was the third in the series, the first having failed and the second having been successful.


This time the test consisted of a Minuteman long-range Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) being fired from California in mainland USA and the anti-missile missile with a warhead being fired from a US base 6,500 miles away on the Marshall Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean and seeking to intercept and destroy the ICBM 250 km above the earth. The test was an utter failure as the second stage of the intercepting missile did not separate from the main rocket leaving totally unanswered the main question of whether it would have accurately collided with the ICBM at a speed of approximately 25,000 kmph and destroyed it as intended.

A great deal hinged on this test which cost an estimated $100 million. US President Bill Clinton was expected, based on results of the test, to take a decision as to giving a go-ahead to the larger programme of building the anti-missile system and later deploying it as part of the NMD. In formal terms, the US Defence Department is to satisfy itself about the technical feasibility of the anti-missile system based on such and other tests and only then ask the US Congress to sanction the necessary funding, amounting to several billion dollars, for building the various elements and putting in place the NMD.

Many influential commentators and experts had indeed pointed out that the test itself was virtually “fixed” and everything possible was done to ensure its success. While the first of the series of three tests had the target Minuteman ICBM mounted with 10 decoy balloons to deceive the intercepting missile or “kill vehicle” as to the identity of the real target, the ICBM in this third test had only one balloon, and that too 10 times the size of the ICBM warhead making it simple to tell one from the other! Those firing the “kill vehicle” had a full display and countdown sequence of the target ICBM, its planned trajectory and so on. No wonder some experts described the test as “bagging…[a] precooked and strapped-down chicken”! These experts point out that even if the test had succeeded it would have proved nothing and any system developed based on it would be fatally defective since no enemy was likely to create such perfect conditions to aid the intercept-and-kill anti-missile system.

A few strategic experts and commentators in the US have predicted that President Clinton may now postpone a decision on building and deployment of the NMD system or even defer it since ha cannot declare it to be technically feasible. However, only wishful thinkers or na├»ve people would believe that the failure of the recent test is going to be a major setback to the programme or that it may even damage the prospects of the US NMD. As the discussion to follow would elucidate, there are several reasons, all central to the character of the US State and its strategic doctrines as they play out in the present global context, due to which the US will continue on its current path towards erecting the NMD system, undeterred by this failure. If the “fixed” test, however flawed, had given a positive result, so much for the good, otherwise national security imperatives could always be invoked.

While the US National Security Council spokesman, P.J.Crowley, simply said the test failure “would have to be evaluated by the Pentagon,” other officials said the failure was “irrelevant to their studies of the technical feasibility of the system” since the ageing booster rocket used would not be used in the actual missile. In any case, commented the New York Times editorially on July 9, the failure “doesn’t alter the underlying reasons to seek such a [NMD] system” and recommended that the US pursue the present development programme till it actually does become technically feasible!


A brief overview of the NMD and its significance would be useful, even though regular readers of these columns would recall earlier detailed discussions of the same. The NMD is ostensibly a defensive shield around the continental United States to protect it from nuclear attacks by incoming ICBMs. The NMD would consist of a system of anti-missile missiles which would intercepting and blow up these hostile missiles a few hundred miles above the earth so that even any resulting fallout is kept out of the earth’s atmosphere and hence from affecting the American population below it. While sharing many similarities with Ronald Reagan’s infamous Star Wars project, it differs from it chiefly in being a system of land-based missiles rather than space-based detection and weapons systems.

A slightly modified version of the NMD system, the so-called Theatre Defence Systems (TMD) are being planned for defence of specific regions, ostensibly to protect US troops in these regions but clearly also seeking to deploy a protective umbrella over key US allies such as Israel, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Both NMD and TMD are being projected by the US as defensive systems, chiefly seeking protection from attacks by “rogue” states such as North Korea or Iraq. This is a transparent attempt to reduce domestic anxieties about a fresh arms race against nuclear-armed adversaries while simultaneously trying to convince these potential adversaries that the NMD/TMD systems are not really targeted against them. For obvious reasons, this has not fooled anybody, least of all Russia and China, and not even US allies in Europe. For it is self-evident that a defensive shield would operate against all aggressors, “rogue” or otherwise.

Within the framework of nuclear doctrines of deterrence, especially “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) wherein each nation is expected to refrain from a nuclear exchange because of the fear that this would be result in total destruction of both parties, the NMD is rightly viewed by other nuclear-armed powers as an aggressive weapons system. For instance, to Russia the US NMD means that Russian missiles could not strike US targets while the US would retain its ability to strike targets in Russia.

In fact, it was precisely in order to maintain the “balance of terror” that the US and the then Soviet Union had signed an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which specifically prohibits the development of anti-missile systems such as the NMD. The US today wants the ABM Treaty to be “amended” to permit it to build and deploy the NMD and TMD systems which would be tantamount to scrapping the Treaty altogether.


Russia is therefore understandably furious that the US is proceeding unilaterally with its NMD programme even at the risk of endangering the ABM Treaty. China too has reacted angrily to the NMD and even more so to the TMD which it sees as aimed against China’s Taiwan policy. Given the logic of nuclear deterrence, it is clear worldwide that the US endeavours towards NMD/TMD would immediately trigger a new and dangerous arms race, a fear expressed even by US NATO allies in Europe.

Russia and China have already declared that they would take

counter-measures if the US went ahead with NMD/TMD deployment. However, neither is likely to try and set up a similar defensive shield system due to the huge costs involved, especially given the past experience when the Soviet Union spent enormous amounts on its own answer to the US Star Wars programme. And this is precisely what is likely to make the new arms race extremely dangerous.

Russia is likely to counter the NMD threat by increasing the number of warheads on multiple- warhead ICBMs so that any intercepting missile has numerous warheads to try and catch up with. Russia has also said it would suitably re-deploy nuclear-armed cruise missiles which, since they do not follow a fixed trajectory like ballistic missiles, cannot be intercepted in the same manner, or even intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) which, having a shorter trajectory gives less time to tracking stations and intercept operations.

China, which currently is estimated to have 50-60 long-range ICBMs targeting the US and about 300 IRBMs aimed at Taiwan and other regional targets, is most likely, given its relatively less sophisticated technological capabilities, to simply manufacture and deploy many more ICBMs and IRBMs so as to numerically

overwhelm any potential defensive shield and ensure that, in the barrage of missiles, at least some would get through.


Since all this is quite evident, many commentators including the many editorials written in Indian and international newspapers after the failed test are somehow puzzled as to what motivates the US to undertake the NMD/TMD venture which would spark off another nuclear arms race. The most common doubts expressed are why the US, which has such overwhelming strategic superiority, is so worried about a missile attack that it needs to set up an NMD system, who does it want to defend itself against, and why is all this taking place at a time when the Cold War is over and the whole world expects a gradual de- nuclearisation.

It has been pointed out that, after all, the US and Russia are engaged in arms reduction and that the Cold War is in any case over, and further than China is hardly a real nuclear threat to the US given the huge difference in strategic capability. It has also been forcefully argued that “rogue nations” or other “rogue forces” are not likely to risk an attack on the US by one or two isolated missiles for fear of the massive retaliation it would bring and that such forces are more likely to strike with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction by driving them across the US borders in a truck or even simply carrying them across in a suitcase, both methods being outside the scope of the NMD to prevent!

The old hard fact of the matter is that the US is pushing the NMD/TMD programmes in pursuit of the same strategic goal it has long held as the world’s leading imperialist power, that is, total strategic (read military) superiority and global domination. The US believes that neither Russia nor China will be able to keep up with it in this race, just as the Soviet Union could not. NMD/TMD can be pursued even while bilateral or multilateral moves to mutually reduce nuclear weapons proceed since it would place the US in a position of overwhelming superiority even with reduced numbers of warheads, especially less warheads with the other.

The many documents placed by the US Defence Secretary and other arms of the US Administration before Congress bear ample testimony to this overarching strategic goal. And it is this goal, pushed forward by the more conservative and right-wing forces and the military- industrial corporates whose leading lights in this case are Boeing and Raytheon Corporation, which will ensure that NMD/TMD goes forward notwithstanding some glitches such as the failed test last week.

President Clinton has already committed himself, subject to the establishment of the technical feasibility of the system being developed, to a “limited” NMD system with about 100 anti-missile missiles and radar tracking from Alaska to detect and track incoming missiles. Even this limited system is estimated to cost in the order of $60 billion! The Republicans argue that this is too limited and want a more aggressive, pervasive system with far more missiles and “kill assurance”. In any case,

with US Presidential elections just a few months, even if he wanted to, Clinton cannot afford not to give at least a limited go-ahead to the NMD programme, whatever the results of this test.


All this leaves us with a very big question and several related ones, namely, if the US can so easily violate the ABM Treaty, what sanctity can one attach to any other nuclear-weapons related treaty such as the NPT or CTBT? If the NPT cannot be amended to include India and Pakistan as nuclear weapon States, how can the ABM Treaty be amended to oblige the US? The answer to all these and similar questions is the same, as has been consistently argued in these columns, especially since the Pokhran-II tests by India.

Under the present international dispensation, all these nuclear weapons related treaties are not disarmament treaties at all, but instruments through which the US seeks to put a seal on and perpetuate its strategic dominance of the world. The US determination to erect the NMD/TMD systems are again evidence to this fact which is so conveniently and easily ignored by those who want India to sign the CTBT. Nuclear disarmament can only be achieved by clear, transparent and universally applicable agreements and measures which bring about universal reduction and eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons in all nations worldwide and the means of delivering them.