What’s the Right Missile Defense System for America?

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President Bush and Russian President Putin (whom Bush now refers to as his“new friend”) are scheduled to meet at a summit in Washington, D.C. on Nov.13. Likely to be at the top of the agenda is missile defense and the AntiBallistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. As the summit approaches, it appears thatthe United States and Russia will agree to allow extensive missile defensetesting without abandoning the treaty (although this continues to be along-term goal of the Bush administration).

However, there is one fundamental question that still lingers and that hasnot received much attention in the public square: What is the exact scopeand nature of a missile defense system?

The Bush administration has been intentionally vague about the exact detailsand system architecture. According to the Ballistic Missile DefenseOrganization (BMDO), its objective is to “develop the capability to defendthe forces and territories of the United States, its allies, and friendsagainst all classes of ballistic missile threats.” Furthermore, thesecretary of defense has directed that the program focus “on missile defenseas a single integrated BMD [ballistic missile defense] system, no longerdifferentiating between theater and national missile defense.”

It would seem, then, that national missile defense has quietly become globalinternational missile defense, designed not just to protect the UnitedStates (although missile defense is portrayed to the American public asdefending the United States), but also allies and friends around the world.Indeed, the Bush administration plan seems no different than the “fromanywhere to anywhere” threat rationale used for the GPALS (global protectionagainst limited strikes) system proposed by the previous Bushadministration. This should come as no surprise because many of the topthinkers and decision-makers in the current administration are holdoversfrom the elder Bush’s tenure.

But why should the United States shoulder the burden of a global missiledefense system (likely to cost well in excess of $100 billion, if notseveral hundred billion dollars) when many of the friends and allies thatsuch a system would protect are wealthy enough to pay for their own missiledefense, already spend too little on their own defense, and already benefitfrom U.S. security guarantees?

Furthermore, such a system mimics the overextended U.S. defense perimeter,which is built on the misperception that vital U.S. national securityinterests require defending every region of the globe and responding toevery crisis in those many regions. The belief is that a global missiledefense system would create a shield that would give the United Statesfreedom of action to operate with relative impunity throughout the world.But if policymakers feel more secure, they may also feel more emboldened toengage in reckless overseas military adventures, which could actuallyundermine U.S. national security.

If the United States is going to build a new strategic framework with Russiaand eventually scrap the ABM Treaty (although Russia still considers thetreaty central to nuclear stability), it should do so to provide realnational security for the U.S. homeland and not to be the world’s policeman.Advocates of missile defense are quick to paint a “doom and gloom” picturethat America and Americans are defenseless against attacks from ballisticmissiles. Why then are we pursuing a system that will defend the world andwill be significantly more expensive than a system designed to defend theUnited States? Seems a little like “bait and switch” tactics.

The single most important function of the U.S. government is to protect theAmerican people. To the extent that a truly national missile defense systemis technically and operationally feasible and fiscally affordable, the U.S.government should strive to develop and deploy such a system. But anydefense expenditure -- including spending on missile defense -- must becommensurate to the threat. The potential rogue state threat is limited.Terrorists armed with ballistic missiles are an even more limited and moreremote threat (and terrorists are highly unlikely to use ballistic missilesbecause they provide an immediate and known “return address” forretaliation).

It is disingenuous to say “America is defenseless” as a rationale to gainpublic support for missile defense, but then to pursue an exorbitantlyexpensive global system to defend U.S. friends and allies overseas.Instead, the United States should develop and deploy a limited and moreaffordable land-based national missile defense designed to protect the U.S.homeland.