Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on October 25 said he was delaying planned missile defense tests because they might violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But wait. On October 5, the department announced the same tests would be delayed for technical reasons. What's going on here?

On October 5, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Rick Lehner told reporters that the October 24 tests -- the same ones that the secretary discussed on October 25 -- would be postponed to an unspecified date between the end of November and mid-December. He said the delay was due to the need to do more ground testing of the kill vehicle's hardware and software. It had nothing to do, he said, with preserving the unity of the coalition against terrorism. So why, three weeks later, did Secretary Rumsfeld blame the ABM treaty for the delay?

There are two possible explanations.

The first is that the White House ordered the announcement to improve the climate for the meeting between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-November. Rumors are that Bush is pushing the Strategic Command to agree to deeper cuts in offensive nuclear forces and is exploring a compromise that would avoid U.S abrogation of the ABM Treaty. Spinning the test delay as treaty-related could send a signal of accommodation to the Russians before this crucial Washington-Crawford summit.

The second explanation is that this is an effort by Pentagon hard-liners to show that the ABM treaty is stopping them from fielding an effective missile defense. "This shows that the ABM treaty is already constraining us in a very material way," an anonymous senior official told The Washington Post. This could strengthen Bush's hand with Putin as he can claim that he has already had to cancel an important test because of the treaty. The treaty, therefore, must go.

The supposed ABM treaty violation involves the use of an Aegis radar to track the target in the next planned intercept test. The test will be identical to the last test conducted on July 14, except for the presence of the Aegis ship as an observer. The radar would play no role in the actual tracking, targeting or intercept. It would just gather data.

But the Aegis radar is irrelevant to current U.S. national missile defense plans. There are no current plans to involve the Aegis cruisers and destroyers in any national missile defense system. Under the most ambitious current schedules, the Navy hopes to adapt the Aegis air-defense system to give them some capability against short- and medium-range missiles, but not against long-range ICBMs like the targets of the planned tests. The Navy hopes to field a short-range capability sometime around 2005 and a medium-range capability soon after 2010. The United States and Russia have already agreed that all the tests necessary for these systems to proceed are allowed under the ABM treaty.

There are some suggestions that the Aegis ships could be used to intercept long-range missile in their launch or boost-phase, but that would require an entirely new interceptor that might be too big for the ships. The capability of the radar is an issue, but relatively minor compared to the other unresolved problems confronting a navy boost-phase system.

Last June, missile defense officials told the Senate that there were no tests planned for the next year that would violate the ABM treaty. Then, in July testimony, officials said that they had decided to begin construction of a new test range in Alaska and that they had added the Aegis as an observer in a test scheduled for February 2002. Both would be technical violations of the treaty. Many experts suspect that since both activities would provide only minor improvement over current test plans and facilities that the true purpose of the additions was to force the treaty issue sooner rather than later. It is unclear when the Aegis ship was shifted from the February test to the October test, or if Congress was informed of the change.

Defense officials must be more forthcoming about the true motives and benefits of these tests. Critical national security decisions depend on it. As President Bush enters his meeting with Putin, he must have all the information, not just the latest spin.

Additional resources:

Excerpts from DoD News Briefing Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, 29 October 2001

Q: Mr. Secretary, I'd like to take you back to Thursday and your missile defense announcement. This is a little offpoint, but you very forcefully came out and said that the U.S. is going to delay the next test because of concerns over the ABM Treaty, potential violations. Did you know at the time that that test was actually delayed for technical reasons unrelated to the ABM Treaty and will occur in December at some point without the Aegis radar that is in violation of the treaty? And your pronouncement was somewhat incomplete, I thought.

Rumsfeld: Well, if it was, I'm sorry. I what my understanding of this is that there are a series of tests that are planned, and one of which has already happened, I believe, and there are three or four more two or three more, and that the test will go forward, but we will not be able to use a certain radar to track that missile, because some not all, but some might contend that it would be could be considered a violation of the ABM Treaty. We do not intend to violate the ABM Treaty, and we shall not.

Q: But your remarks the other day did imply that the only reason it was being delayed was because of ABM concerns, when apparently there were technical reasons that are going to delay it anyway.

Rumsfeld: First of all, there's no it; there were four things, as I recall, not a singular thing. And second, the fact that the missile is still fired and other tests are performed on it is a perfectly acceptable thing. The important thing is that we are not using one radar on it, because of the reason I just stated. Now if one of those tests is cancelled or has been cancelled for technical reasons, so be it. All I know is, at the time I was asked what should they do, I said, "Do not violate the treaty." And if later there was a technical reason and we we could not have used radar anyway, that's life. But there were three or four of these instances, and in each case we made the decision not to put the United States in a position where a small cluster of lawyers could argue that we were violating the treaty.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfled and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense News Briefing, 25 October 2001

Missile Defense Testing Put On Hold (Associated Press) October 26, 2001

3 Missile Shield Tests Postponed (Los Angeles Times) October 26, 2001

Pentagon Sets Back Missile Test Schedule (Reuters) 5 October 2001

The Physics of Missile Defense, panel discussion with Thomas Z. Collina, Phillip E. Coyle and Theodore A. Postol at the Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference, 18 June 2001

The Coyle Report: A Comprehensive Pentagon Study Criticizing the National Missile Defense Test Program, from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Defense Department, released 31 May 2001 (pdf)

Projected NMD Developments Timeline, Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers