The 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty reduced the chances for a nuclear conflagration and is a cornerstone of the last three decades’ thaw in East-West relations. Not long into his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, Secretary of Defense-designate Donald H. Rumsfeld stated that he favors deployment of a national missile defense system when it is technically proven adequate. He later referred to the 1972 treaty as “ancient history.”
Rumsfeld’s remarks suggest that President-elect George W. Bush intends to follow through on his campaign vow to deploy a national missile defense system (NMD). On its face, the notion of a system that will defend against incoming enemy missiles is certainly attractive. But its widespread deployment would violate the ABM treaty, which bans such a defense because it could encourage a first strike by a nation able to defend against retaliation. That is, it would undermine the deterrent of mutually assured destruction.
Rumsfeld’s remarks took no one by surprise. In 1998, he chaired the congressionally appointed Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. The panel’s report disputed earlier intelligence estimates that North Korea, Iran and Iraq, regarded as the most likely candidates to stage a missile attack against the U.S., would remain incapable of launching a missile that could strike the U.S. mainland until 2015. It instead urged Washington to continue developing and testing a national missile defense in order to parry a missile attack that North Korea could be in a position to launch as early as 2005. The report underpins Bush’s call for deployment of a NMD.
Republicans have been clamoring to pump additional billions into the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the Reagan administration program to shoot down nuclear missiles with spaced-fired laser and particle beams, ever since technical problems, skyrocketing costs, disarmament talks and the fall of communism persuaded Congress to slice its funding. Horrifying images of the damage inflicted on Israel by Iraqi missiles during the 1991 Gulf War remained fresh in the memory of voters when the Republicans included a national missile defense in “contract with America,” their campaign platform in the 1994 midterm elections. Following the Republican landslide that year, President Bill Clinton began to retreat from his stated opposition to the NMD.
Amid his 1996 reelection campaign, Clinton agreed to three years of research and development on a national missile defense, to be followed by a decision, based on existing and potential threats, to deploy or not. Deployment would take three years. Since then, the goal has been a limited missile-defense system to fend off a single-missile attack from North Korea, Iraq or Iran. This scaled-down missile defense is consistent with the “rogue states” doctrine, which was first formulated before the Gulf War by then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell. According to its critics, the doctrine was motivated as much by the Pentagon’s search for a post-Cold War mission as by genuine threats to U.S. security. However, no sooner had the Rumsfeld commission issued its 1998 report than North Korea fired a three-stage missile that crashed into the Pacific. Missile-defense advocates declared vindication.
Critics responded that even if a North Korean missile could reach the West Coast and inflict tens or even hundreds of thousands of casualties, the North Koreans would not launch such an attack because it would provoke a massive U.S. nuclear response. Missile-defense supporters countered that it is far more ethical to threaten to shoot down an enemy’s missiles than to annihilate its entire population.
As long as the NMD is debated in such moral terms, the result will be impasse. But in the case of the national missile-defense system, facts allow one to answer some key questions: Does the U.S. need a missile defense—that is, is there a real threat—and is there no reasonable alternative to one? If the answer is “yes” to these questions, then is it worth the time and money to build a reliable NMD?
Missile-defense supporters answer “yes” to all the above. Naysayers claim that even if the answers to the first three are “yes,” which they are not, the answer to the forth is “no.” In the past two decades, Washington has spent $130 billion on SDI/NMD, with little to show for it. Test firings have failed regularly, including key preliminary NMD tests attempted in January and October 1999 and this past July. Even the “success,” which the Pentagon initially deemed unqualified, was later acknowledged as only partial. In the absence of demonstratable success, the Clinton administration left deployment up to its successor.
During Thursday’s hearing, Rumsfeld assured Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that the NMD will be thoroughly evaluated. Hopefully, he meant by an independent team of experts.
Most important, the Pentagon has not yet described, much less demonstrated, a reliable means to deal with what critics consider the NMD’s fatal flaw: the insurmountability of enemy countermeasures. The latter range from launching decoy balloons to shielding warheads within aluminum liquid-nitrogen-cooled shells to avoid sending out heat signatures.
Frank Gaffney, deputy assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration and currently director of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, contends that if relatively simple approaches to overcome enemy countermeasures do not work, we can put “nuclear warheads” on our defensive missiles, relying on thermonuclear explosions, rather than direct impact, to annihilate incoming missiles.
If that option is ruled out, we can develop weapons that will shoot down enemy missiles at the “booster stage,” that is, before a warhead separates from a much larger, slower and more easily tracked three-stage missile. Asked where the detection and firing systems would be located, Gaffney answered, “space.”
Interestingly, Rumsfeld, who is an advisor and donor to the Center for Security Policy and recipient of its annual “Keeper of the Flame” prize, is the chair of another congressionally appointed panel: the U.S. Commission to Assess National Security Space Management and Organization, which is about to issue its report. Rumsfeld did not say to what extent the recommendations of his two panels complement one another.