Cohen Briefing on BMD

24th March 2000

Below is an interchange with the media at the DOD March 24 briefing by Secretary of Defense William Cohen on the BMD issue:

Q: Mr. Secretary, yesterday a pretty substantial group of Republican leaders on the Hill and former Reagan and Bush Administration defense and national security officials issued a kind of manifesto on missile defense urging Governor Bush to make it a focal point of the fall campaign. They had about three major criticisms of your policy on missile defense.

Secretary Cohen: Not my policy.

Q: Well, the Administration's policy. (Laughter) Kind of yours. I'd ask you to respond to each of them. One was that the threat is much more immediate than you have portrayed it. That there is a clear and present danger now, not four or five years off. Second, that a sea-based system based on existing technologies with some add-ons would provide a kind of interim defense. And third, that the Clinton Administration is willing to negotiate limits on future sea and space-based systems in order to get an agreement with the Russians to allow your current plan for a land-based system.

Secretary Cohen: How long do I have to answer these questions? (Laughter)

Q: Half an hour.

Secretary Cohen: Okay.

Q: Last question of the day. (Laughter)

Secretary Cohen: Let me go to the first one. I can't speak for others, but I have made it very clear I think the threat is here. I don't put the threat off into the future. I have said there have been four criteria the President has spoken of frequently that he would base his judgment on whether to deploy a system or not, number one, the threat. I maintain the threat is here today. If it's not here right now it will be here tomorrow. So I don't look for it in terms of off into the future. So I see it quite more immediate than perhaps others do.

Number two, the issue of getting an interim system. I was one of those who helped negotiate the compromise up on the Hill when I was in the Senate on the 3+3. The reason that 3+3 was negotiated was to try to get a system in place as quickly as possible. That is the reason the land-based system was in fact chosen, and that's the reason we put so much into NMD as opposed to even our theater missile defense system because we saw this threat as emerging quite near term and this was the best way to have the technology we think we can develop to get it deployed as quickly as possible. Now there have been suggestions...

Q: Excuse me, Sir. 3+3?

Secretary Cohen: Okay, it was three years of research and development and then a decision would be made to try to deploy them in three years. When I took over I extended that to five years so it's three years of R&D and then over a five year period to deploy because I became convinced that this system was being rushed to the point where it would not be effective in the sense that we needed more time for testing and to make sure we're doing the right thing from a technological point of view. So the notion that you can have an interim system that is sea-based, I have not seen support for that in the sense it would be an effective system. The information that has been brought to me is that you would have to have a new missile with new radars, and those would take longer to develop than the actual land-based system that we have in mind right now. Now is it conceivable you could have some kind of a short-term system where you base it off the coast of one of the countries in question using a system of systems? It depends, you'd have to be really lucky in that case.

I think we're on the right track as far as a land-based proposal, and that the CNO has said when you're looking at future systems don't discount sea-based, and we've said we won't. That's still open. As far as the third point, the Administration has made it clear that the current proposal that we have is a limited system against a limited type of an attack. It will be land-based. It will be in roughly two phases. The first phase being in Alaska; the second to be determined, but would come fairly quickly in terms of negotiations. So that's the posture that we're in, and frankly, when I was on the Hill and negotiated, that's the reason we went with the land-based system.

Q: Mr. Secretary, on missile defense. It's understandable perhaps why the Russians and the Chinese are sort of skittish on this. But you were in Munich last month talking with our European allies and there seems to be a fair level of anxiety there. Can you tell us, number one, why you think they're so anxious? And number two, how you're going -- What do you want from them? Do you just want them to stay out of the way? Do you want them actually to participate? What's the situation there?

Secretary Cohen: Can I go back and finish on the...

Q: Sure.

Secretary Cohen: Tie this in. We talked about threat, technology, cost, and the fourth factor was arms control. That's something the President has to take into account, namely, do you get more security or less? Do you cause an arms race to be rekindled? Do you undercut the whole movement on START II and III and IV? That's something that has to be factored into this and will be factored in. The President made it very clear, it's not just the first three, it's the fourth as well. With respect to the European allies, there are a number of concerns that they raise. Number one, they see the ABM Treaty as being the stabilizing factor in the overall relation for the United States and Russia. They do not want to see that destabilized.

Number two, they're concerned whether there's any "decoupling". The British and the French say what will this do to our systems? So they want to make sure they still have an effective retaliatory system should the Russians ever decide to attack them. The third is whether or not there would be any kind of disconnect between the trans-Atlantic relationship.

So we have tried at least to address those. That this would not diminish, number one, would not diminish their retaliatory capability. It would not decouple the United States from them. And that potentially they too can evolve into a defensive type of arrangement. They are concerned about TMD, for example. The Germans, the Italians are joining the United States in a theater missile defense system called MEADS. So they see an emerging threat as well. When I spoke to the NATO allies at the meeting in Brussels, once we laid out what our program was, number one, we are trying to negotiate changes to the ABM Treaty. This is not an Administration that says the treaty is irrelevant, it wants to modify it to allow for a limited type of system against a limited type of an attack.

This is not the former Star Wars redux. I think that once we laid out the threat, and we did that in a classified briefing, and then showed what we had in mind for that, a lot of minds were changed. They at least were opened.

Did you change everybody? The answer is no.

Did it open minds? The answer is yes.

I had some who came in and said before this meeting we were totally opposed. Now I can see your point and we support it.

So it's going to take some time, but what basically the Russians would seek to do is to find if they can divide the alliance by saying that we don't have unanimity or solidarity of the alliance, that's the most effective way to try to terminate any NMD on the part of the United States. I've also tried to convey that message to the alliance. The more solid we are the better off we're going to be as far as negotiating with the Russians. The Russians are unlikely to agree to anything as long as they feel they can split the alliance on this, because we will need the cooperation of several key allies as far as forward deployed radars. Not only do you need to upgrade existing radar capability, but to actually build new radars called X-Band radars. So their cooperation is going to be important. So we have undertaken to meet with them regularly.

I was with the Italian Minister of Defense yesterday. He received a briefing before I met with him and we discussed it during the meeting as well. So I think there's a lot more equanimity about what we have in mind and the fact that we're seeking to work within the ABM context of modifying it for a limited purpose.

The fact remains that we, you cannot defend against an all-out assault by the Russians. This is designed to deal with the rogue nations, to prevent a Saddam Hussein or Iran or Libya or another rogue nation, North Korea, to try and intimidate the United States saying don't think about responding. Or don't deploy Desert Storm because I might put one in downtown LA or New York City or Washington, D.C. Then you have a different calculation. Would the allies be as willing to join up to Desert Storm in those circumstances?

Q: But have you gotten agreement from England and from Denmark to upgrade those two first radars for the initial...

Secretary Cohen: We're still, we haven't even sought agreement at this point. We're going through the educational process and I think we're having some pretty substantial, positive signs.

Q: Mr. Secretary, a big flaw was found in the Patriot system the other day, and that system's been around for quite awhile. Does that suggest that maybe the whole technology is a lot more fragile than has been known at this point?

Secretary Cohen: I can't give you a good answer on that, Paul. Right now there's, the situation -- I think our security situation has been corrected so there's adequate protection for our forces and for our allies. We're still going through a very detailed examination in terms of what was the specific cause of failure so I think it's too early to tell how to correct those.

Q: But in terms of the broader sort of whole missile defense concept, does it raise questions about that as well?

Secretary Cohen: Not in my mind, no. I think any time you have high technology instruments there's always a potential for a defect or failure. How long have we been building cars? Because we have recalls that take place from time to time doesn't mean we haven't been successful in building cars. I don't want to minimize the situation, but whenever you're dealing with high technology, you've got to check it, constantly test it to make sure that all the components are fully capable of carrying out the particular mission.

Q: Nuclear missile defense. What do you think of this idea of putting over the decision to the next President?

Secretary Cohen: I think it's too early to make that decision right now. As far as I'm concerned what we should do is complete the tests, allow for an examination of the tests. It's going to come now later than we anticipated, now sometime in June. It takes about a month to evaluate that. Then I have to look at it and make a recommendation. I think there's, at this point we should just press ahead and complete the tests and resolve that question later, but it's too early to say that it should be postponed.

Q: The argument is made that if this President makes the decision it is more likely we could get a limited nuclear system plus limited modifications of the ABM Treaty which is held in high esteem all around the world.

Secretary Cohen: As opposed to...

Q: If the Republicans should win, that we just go for broke on the whole thing, you know? (Laughter) ...bigger than your budget.

Q: ...go to hell.

Secretary Cohen: Please note that Bud said we were going to hell. (Laughter)

Q: Could you just focus on that question a little bit?

Secretary Cohen: Right now there is bipartisan support for deploying a limited missile defense system. Both the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats have spoken on this issue. To say that if a Republican is elected that he is going to simply disband any consideration of the ABM would imply that he doesn't care what our allies have to say, or that we can deploy a system without the support of our allies, which I don't think is realistic.

As I tried to point out, there are some who argue, Henry Kissinger and others may argue that the treaty is no longer relevant today. But it's relevant in the sense that certainly diplomatically it's relevant to our allies, and from a technical point of view we still need their support because we have to have forward deployed radars in order to make a national missile defense system effective.

So I think anyone who is elected -- Democrat or Republican -- has to take that into account. You cannot simply devise a system, not in the short term at least, to say that we don't care what our allies have to say about this and we're just going forward, because you do need their support.

So I don't think... I think it's too easy to say if the Republicans get in they're just going to abandon everything, abandon, "all ye who enter here in the Republican booth abandon all hope". I don't think anyone can say that.

I think that you'd say that once, if a Republican takes office, if George Bush is elected, he will have the same considerations that President Clinton has. How do I hold this system together, how do I hold the support of the allies, what kind of a system do I deploy that is persuasive to them that also engenders their support? Now conceivably, you can come up with a project to say that we can do it all on our own, but that's further away, and that's not likely to build a real nexus of consensus for our relationship with our allies.

Q: I just have one other thing. I read Mr. Perry's report on North Korea. He does not recommend the building of a missile defense.

Secretary Cohen: It was under Bill Perry that the 3+3 was negotiated. As a matter of fact...

Q: But he doesn't in the report. At least in the unclassified one. (Laughter)

Secretary Cohen: You'd have to ask him on that. I think Bill Perry does in fact support a limited type of system, but I can't speak for him.

Q: It's a lot of trouble for one little country, don't you think?

Secretary Cohen: It's not just North Korea. North Korea is also exporting its technology. You also have Iran developing long range missiles. You have the potential should Iraq get back in the business, they certainly were very close to having long range missile capability. So it's not just North Korea.

Back to Home Page