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Why Missile-Defense is a Bad Idea (For Now)

02.26.2000 | POLITICS

This election year, America's vulnerability to missile attack will take center stage in what passes for foreign policy debate in this country. The Republicans will no doubt go after what they see as an unconscionable hesitancy on the part of the Clinton Administration to develop and deploy a land-based missile defense system. They will say that the gradualist approach puts Americans at risk and that a system should already be set for deployment.

Often lost amidst the name calling and the bombast, however, are two facts: One, the technology is flawed, and Two, it violently disrupts the nuclear balance.

At first glance, the question of missile defense seems a no-brainer: it is a dangerous world, and if the US can build a system that protects its citizens, then it should be built. Unfortunately the matter is not so simple, and when the full consequences are considered, it is clear that the unilateral building of missile-defense as currently conceived profoundly weakens US security.

Building even a limited missile defense system would violate the landmark Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which has been the cornerstone of nuclear stability since its signing in 1972. This treaty institutionalizes the notion of Mutual Assured Destruction, and leaves countries equally vulnerable to retaliatory attacks. It thus checks delusional ambition and assures both sides that any attack is suicidal. Because all major powers have second-strike capability, any incentive to attack first is eliminated. Under the absurd but sound logic of MAD, war is unwinnable. There is no room for first-strike theories here because even if you shoot first, you are destroyed.

Unilaterally breaking the ABM Treaty would amount to throwing away the lessons of MAD. It gives the US a strategic advantage that looks defensive in Washington, but looks offensive in Moscow and Beijing. Security is often a zero sum game, and when one country improves its own security unilaterally, then that of others is automatically weakened. Building even a limited shield would lead to not only the collapse of existing arms control agreements, but would most likely trigger an arms race, as Russia and China seek to offset our newfound advantage. The Non-Proliferation Pact, which is predicated upon arms control eventual disarmament by the nuclear superpowers, would no doubt fall apart as well. (That is, if it hasn't already thanks to the GOP Test Ban Treaty rejection).

Russia's post-Soviet military is famously full of rust. This includes not only tanks and fighter planes, but vital command and control networks that manage its nuclear arsenal. Paranoid and vulnerable following NATO's expansion and subsequent bombing of Serbia, the Russian military establishment views the breaking of the ABM Treaty as a warlike decision, and is thus more likely to misinterpret political decisions in Washington as well as future radar data that may mistake a weather balloon for an incoming ICBM. US-Russian relations need stability right now, not suspicion, jitters and a dangerous new strategic paradigm.

Further East, the Chinese have already announced that they will increase their nuclear arsenal to counter any US system, which in turn will likely lead to an intensifying arms race on the sub-Continent: India will respond to China and Pakistan will respond to India. But of course ideological proponents of missile defense don't care about this, if they even acknowledge it. They would be classic ‘innocents abroad,' these hawks, if they owned passports.

Key European allies, led by the French, have denounced US missile-defense plans and said in no uncertain terms that they undermine the Atlantic alliance by removing the strategic value of "shared risk," which has kept NATO countries in the same nuclear boat throughout the history of the alliance. If we can protect ourselves (but not Europe), we might be more likely to take chances we otherwise, out self-preservation, might not take. Depending on how missile defense develops, it could power a non-nuclear movement on the Continent reminiscent of that in the early eighties, which grew out of Reagan's plans to put medium range missiles in Europe.

Then there is the very technical and economic feasibility of the project itself, something doubted by many experts. Recent failures back up these doubts, especially given that they occurred under incredibly controlled circumstances. If the Pentagon can't get it right in their own air show, what makes them think they can do under the heat and unpredictability of crisis, confronted with an enemy employing countermeasures against our system?

Not only would the proposed system be easily defeated by use of decoys and multiple warheads, but "rogue states"--the ostensible target of the system--are in any case much more likely to attempt the use of suitcase bombs which do not identify the sender and assure massive US retaliation. To say that "rogue" states have no concept of national interest is western essentializing of Victorian proportions. Hussein might be a bastard, but he most certainly does not want to be incinerated along with his billions.

And then there is the money. The (estimated) price tag on this technically flawed and strategically disastrous system runs over 12 billion dollars. That's billions of public tax dollars that will seamlessly translate into hefty private industry profit. This little fact might have something to do with the ferocity with which defense industry flacks within and without the DoD make their case.

For all of these reasons, the arguments in favor of missile defense being made most aggressively by George W. Bush and John McCain must receive careful scrutiny in the coming months. Simplistic lectures about ‘our dangerous world' will not suffice to overcome the fact that right now a US missile-defense system makes it even more dangerous.

Which does not mean that some sort of deal cannot be worked out with the other nuclear powers in the future. There are other possible systems that not only would have a higher chance of success but would also threaten major powers less. Theodore Postol of MIT has proposed one such system, which he calls a "boost phase" missile- defense. This system would be built by both Russia and the US and would employ short range weapons strategically placed around "rogue states" to shoot down missiles within minutes of taking flight. Such a system, given its limited range, would pose no threat to Russia, but could actually enhance Russian security as well.

But regardless of the alternative eventually chosen, it is clear that it must not be unilateral and it must not undermine MAD or arms control efforts. We can't stop the advance of military technology, but we can mold and guide it intelligently in accord with larger strategic goals such as stability and disarmament. By pushing so hard and mindlessly for their system, the Republican Party has shown itself to be interested in neither.

For more information on the missile-defense debate, see the web pages of the Union of Concrened Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists, as well as the Winter 1999-2000 issue of Foreign Policy at

About the Author
Jonah Weiss has written about arms control for Freezerbox and is a frequent contributor to numerous small magazines.
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