To date, the debate surrounding national missile defense (NMD) has been dominated by political rhetoric. Supporters (usually conservatives) often paint a “doom-and-gloom” picture, pointing out that the United States is vulnerable to an attack by ballistic missiles. Critics (usually liberals) defend the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as the cornerstone of deterrence and stability and argue that any defensive deployment would upset the balance between the offensive strategic nuclear forces of the United States and Russia.
Opponents of NMD, who use the ABM treaty as an argument not to deploy a defense, need to acknowledge that the threat of attack by long-range ballistic missiles from rogue states may become real. They also need to recognize that the United States can build a limited NMD without disrupting the strategic nuclear balance. Supporters of NMD need to acknowledge that NMD is not a panacea for the full spectrum of threats from rogue states — that long-range ballistic missiles are only one of the options available to those states to strike America. NMD will not provide protection against shorter-range ballistic missiles launched from ships, cruise missiles launched from aircraft or ships, or terrorist attacks. Supporters also need to recognize the daunting technological challenge that NMD poses.
A limited NMD, which would afford the United States protection against long-range ballistic missile threats from rogue states, is feasible and probably can be deployed at a reasonable cost. The elements of the Clinton administration’s NMD program can provide such a capability. The debate should not be whether or not to deploy defenses. It should be about the nature and capabilities of a limited NMD system that would accomplish cost-effectively the mission of protecting the nation against threats from rogue states.
No matter what the threat, however, the development of an NMD system should proceed at a measured pace because an excessively rapid development program could waste taxpayer dollars on an ineffective system.