Bush’s Grandiose Missile Defense Scheme

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In a speech last week at the National Defense University, President Bush arguedthat the United States “must move beyond the constraints” of theAnti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and implied that his administration wouldpursue a robust missile defense program -- including land, sea, air andmaybe even space-based components. The president was purposefully vagueabout the details of his plans for the ABM Treaty and missile defense. Forexample, moving beyond the constraints of the current treaty could meanrenegotiating the pact or simply withdrawing from it. But Bush avoidedannouncing such a withdrawal in the speech.

The president’s speech was premature and will needlessly roil relations withthe Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese. Bush is trying to pacify ardentadvocates of missile defense on Capitol Hill and within the Republican Partywho want to safeguard Ronald Reagan’s dubious Star Wars legacy. The problemis that the technology for missile defense needs to catch up with theadvertisement.

The United States has spent tens of billions of dollars on missile defenseresearch -- a whopping sum as far as military R&D programs go -- sinceReagan first proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. Yet thetechnology for even a limited land-based system has not been demonstrated.Proven technologies for sea, air and space-based systems are many yearsaway. The Clinton administration was working on a limited land-based systembecause that was the technology closest to maturity.

A rush to deploy any system would lead to a system that is unlikely to workproperly and would be expensive and time-consuming to fix afterdeployment -- the situation now faced by V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraftbeing developed by the Marine Corps. Even if the North Korean missile threatmatures faster than expected -- unlikely, given North Korea’s currentmoratorium on missile testing -- rushing development of a missile defensecould actually delay the fielding of a workable system. The Bushadministration should take its time evaluating the options and thoroughlytest the technology so that taxpayers do not end up holding the bag.

National missile defense is the most complex weapon system ever built.“Hitting a bullet with another bullet” is difficult, especially when thebullet is going 15,000 miles per hour. Yet that daunting task may be lessdifficult than integrating the sensors, interceptors and battle managementsystem and ensuring that it will not be fooled by decoy warheads. Instead ofaccelerating the development program and accepting additional risk to getanything -- no matter how ineffective -- deployed, tests that simulate arealistic operating environment should be added to ensure that the systemworks.

If the administration wants a system that can be deployed in the shortestpossible time, it will probably find -- as the Clinton administration did --that a limited land-based system is the option of choice. At present, agrandiose, layered, Star Wars-like missile defense is fantasy. To spendhundreds of billions of dollars on a system that is purportedly designed tocounter only a narrow range of missile threats -- that is, to defend againstlong-range missile attacks from rogue states -- is a waste of taxpayerdollars. The system will provide no protection against more likely threatsof weapons of mass destruction delivered by a bomb on a ship or aircraft orby a short-range missile fired from off the U.S. coast.

In addition, unlike a modest land-based missile defense, a robust, layeredsystem might unduly threaten to negate the Russian and Chinese nucleardeterrents. Those nations might then keep more nuclear weapons in theirarsenals than they otherwise would, deploy missiles with destabilizingmultiple warheads, and increase the alert levels of their missiles.Increasing alert levels may be the most dangerous of all, especially ifearly warning systems are deficient. If either nation erroneously thoughtthat a nuclear attack were underway and that its retaliatory deterrent wouldbe annihilated by the combination of a U.S. offensive strike and defensesystem, it might have an incentive to launch on warning of an attack. Thathair-trigger posture does not contribute to a stable nuclear balance.Furthermore, a nuclear arms race with Russia or China -- caused by a robustmissile defense -- would be unnecessary, destabilizing and costly.

If George W. Bush is truly for constraining the growth of government andguarding the taxpayers’ wallet, he should start by applying those principlesto missile defense. A limited threat deserves a limited expense of publicfunds to counter it.