Go Slow on Missile Defense


In his speech at the National Defense University yesterday,President George W. Bush argued today that the United States "must movebeyond the constraints of the 1972 ABM Treaty" and implied that hisadministration would pursue a robust, layered (land, sea, air andspace-based) missile defense program.

The president was purposefully vague about the details of his plans for theABM Treaty and missile defense. For example, moving beyond the constraintsof the current ABM Treaty could mean renegotiating the pact or simplywithdrawing from it, but Bush did not announce such a withdrawal in thespeech.

The president’s speech was premature and will needlessly roil relationswith the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese. Bush is trying to pacifyardent advocates of missile defense on Capitol Hill and within theRepublican Party. The problem is that the technology for missile defenseneeds to catch up with the advertisement. Despite the tens of billions ofdollars that the United States has spent on missile defense research anddevelopment since the Reagan era, the technology for even a limitedland-based system has not been demonstrated. Proven technologies for sea,air and space-based systems remain many years away. The Clintonadministration was working on a limited land-based system because that wasthe technology closest to maturity.

A rush to deploy any system would lead to one 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 aircraft beingdeveloped by the Marine Corps. Even if the North Korean threat maturesfaster than expected--unlikely, given North Korea’s current moratorium onmissile testing--rushing the development of missile defense could actuallydelay the fielding of a workable system. The Bush administration shouldtake its time evaluating the options and thoroughly testing the technologyso that taxpayers do not end up holding the bag. If the administrationwants a system that can be deployed in the shortest possible time, it willprobably find--as the Clinton administration did--that a limited land-basedsystem is the option of choice.