This past September, President Bill Clinton, having repeatedly resisted a congressional mandate to deploy an antiballistic missile system, announced that he would defer to his successor any decision on National Missile Defense (NMD). As things fell out, that successor, George W. Bush, was elected on a platform calling explicitly for the deployment—“at the earliest possible time”—of a comprehensive, effective, and global missile defense.

And so a debate that has raged off and on for almost twenty years has once again resumed. Within days of the final vote in the Electoral College this past December, the New York Times, a determined and long-time opponent of missile defenses, was editorializing that the “incoming Bush administration risks making an early mistake if it rushes to build” a national system. Instead, the paper urged that nothing whatsoever be done on this front until Russia, China, and “Washington’s main European allies” are all brought on board, and above all that nothing be done until the “technology [of missile defense] is perfected”—something the paper assured its readers was far from being the case. The Times returned to this theme with redoubled alarm upon the announcement later in the month that Donald Rumsfeld, known for his “recent close association with the campaign for early construction of a national missile-defense system,” was the President-elect’s choice for Secretary of Defense.

As, and if, the new President moves to fulfill his campaign pledge, we can expect to hear many more such protests—not just from newspaper editorial boards but from policy analysts, associations of scientists, Senators and Congressmen, and the obligatory lineup of arms-control “experts.” Yet a review of the arguments likely to be mustered against NMD suggests that, far from there being grounds for further inaction, the case for deployment is more compelling than ever.

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II

One question the debate over missile defenses will probably not revolve around is whether there is a threat to defend against. Not even the Times seems to doubt that there is such a threat, or that it is growing.

Indeed, ever since a bipartisan commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld released its findings in July 1998, relatively few critics of NMD have contended that we have nothing to fear. The Rumsfeld panel was chartered by Congress in response to the steady accretion of intelligence from countries hostile to the United States, suggesting that the missile menace was emerging much more rapidly than had previously been assumed. Not only did the commission confirm these “concerted efforts . . . to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads,” it warned that the nations in question “would be able to inflict major destruction on the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability.” It also raised the worry that, on account of the erosion in our own intelligence-gathering abilities, “the U.S. might well have little or no warning before [the weapons’] operational deployment.”

The timeliness of the Rumsfeld panel’s findings was underscored, a month after the release of the report itself, when North Korea unexpectedly launched over Japan’s home islands a ballistic missile more sophisticated than anything it was thought to possess. Today, Pyongyang may well be capable of fielding a missile that can strike a wide arc of territory in the continental U.S. Worse, North Korea regards ballistic missiles as an export commodity, one of the few things the country produces that can provide its bankrupt regime with infusions of hard cash. Even its dictator, Kim Jong-II, has acknowledged that his country is selling missile technology to other rogue nations.1

Among the nations expanding the range of their ballistic missiles, the following are of particular concern:

Iran. Tehran has been conducting a series of flight tests of the Shahab-3, a missile with a range of 800 miles that is believed to have been derived from an older North Korean design. While the latest test apparently failed shortly after lift-off, there is every reason to believe that the regime will continue its pursuit of missile capability all the way to deployment. The Rumsfeld commission reported that “Iran has acquired and is seeking . . . components that can be combined to produce ballistic missiles with sufficient range to strike the United States.” As for the payload that might be mounted on such missiles, the commission asserted that Tehran was close to developing nuclear weapons but “the U.S. is unlikely to know whether Iran possesses [such] weapons until after the fact.”

Libya. According to a recent report in the (London) Sunday Telegraph, Libya has completed its own missile deal with North Korea, secretly taking delivery of the first of 50 missiles and seven mobile launchers. (The consignment was effected after several earlier attempts to ship components were intercepted by British and Indian authorities.) In the words of the Telegraph, “The North Koreans have also agreed to construct in Libya the infrastructure necessary for maintaining and storing the missiles, and to train the Libyans in all aspects of missile technology over a period of five years.”

Syria. To their existing arsenal of Scud missiles, the Syrians have now reportedly added North Korean ground-to-ground Scud-D missiles, with a longer range and greater mobility. These will enable Syria to hold Israel at risk from a much larger area, making it commensurately more difficult to eliminate such missiles prior to their launch.

Iraq/Sudan. According to published reports, North Korea has also opened a franchise operation in Sudan, where it is building a Scud production facility in league with Iraq. If such a facility comes on-line, one can safely posit an even wider proliferation of ballistic missiles in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.

These are the more or less agreed-upon facts. Virtually everything else—from the implications of the emerging threat to what the United States should do about it—is the subject of dispute.

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III

Critics of missile defense often begin with the assertion that building more weapons of any kind, offensive or defensive, is an inferior means of addressing the problem of arms proliferation. Far preferable, they say, to use the instrument of negotiated international agreements, on the model of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty, or the bilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty signed by President Richard Nixon and the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev in 1972. This last accord in particular is held to be the very “cornerstone of strategic stability,” as well as a legally binding obligation from which the United States must not deviate except by formal agreement with the Kremlin.

The central provision of the ABM treaty explicitly prohibits the development, deployment, or operation of territorial defenses against long-range ballistic missiles. At the time the treaty was negotiated, the idea behind this provision was that the way to ensure the joint security of the United States and the Soviet Union was to make both sides absolutely vulnerable to missile attack. Behind this idea lay, on the American side, considerations both practical and theoretical.

The practical consideration was that the Nixon administration had been encountering serious difficulties in its efforts to mobilize congressional support for a national antimissile system. By banning outright what it could not in any event get built, the administration hoped to consolidate support for at least a single complex to defend a nuclear missile site in North Dakota. In the event, even that support failed to materialize.

The theoretical consideration—which took precedence in the minds of many policy-makers both at the time and thereafter—was the cold-war doctrine of arms control that came to be known as mutual assured destruction (MAD). The theory held that if each side’s territory and population were hostage to the certainty of intolerably massive damage in a second, retaliatory strike, first strikes would be ruled out as well, and there would thus emerge a state of reciprocal deterrence. A corollary asserted that MAD would eventually permit substantial reductions in the two sides’ arsenals.

It was not until 1983 that Ronald Reagan revisited the wisdom of continued U.S. adherence to the ABM treaty. He did so in part because, instead of reducing their arsenals during the intervening years, both sides had expanded them. The USSR, in particular, had deployed a succession of land-based missiles with large numbers of independently targetable warheads; these were of sufficient accuracy to cause successive U.S. administrations to believe that the Kremlin was seeking an overwhelming first-strike advantage sufficient to deny us the necessary capability to retaliate. It was first and foremost to exclude this Soviet option that, in March 1983, Reagan launched the antimissile program that came to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Although the aim of SDI was to protect the American people from the scourge of nuclear attack, Reagan undertook it without formally abandoning either the theory of mutual assured destruction or the treaty that enshrined it. As a result, both during Reagan’s tenure and up until the present day, U.S. missile-defense programs have been conducted within the confines of an accord designed to ensure that no effective missile-defense system will ever be developed.

It is difficult to overstate the stultifying effect this arrangement has had on the design, testing, and deployment even of shorter-range (i.e., non-“strategic”) systems that were not supposed to be subjected to the ABM treaty’s constraints, such as the Patriot, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and other programs. As for weapons capable of performing truly strategic or intercontinental antimissile functions, the treaty prohibited outright several of the options the new President may want to explore, including sea-, air-, and space-based systems, as well as mobile (or non-fixed) ground-based ones. The ABM treaty also severely restricted the way in which tests could be performed on fixed, ground-based interceptors—the only type of antimissile systems whose deployment was permitted, albeit at just one location on each signatory’s soil.

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In short, the ABM treaty was designed to make it exceedingly difficult—if not, as a practical matter, impossible—to demonstrate legally that effective antimissile systems were achievable. In that objective, it succeeded. This, in turn, is what has enabled critics to argue that we should not abandon a treaty that “works” in favor of a defense system that has not shown it can.

Thankfully, in American political circles there is a growing recognition that the ABM treaty is a relic of another era—“outdated,” in the words of Senator Joseph Lieberman, who in October 1999 pointed out correctly that “the danger now is more from rogue nations” unbound by any treaty than from the former Soviet Union. And even where the latter is concerned, compelling evidence has accumulated that, both then and now, the ABM treaty has conspicuously failed to constrain the Kremlin. Drawing upon recently declassified materials and on the memoirs of the men who designed the Soviet Union’s antimissile and air-defense systems, William T. Lee, a retired intelligence analyst, has scrupulously documented the former USSR’s successful pursuit of protection against American offensive weapons, not only for the region around Moscow (permitted under the treaty) but for the entirety of its territory. This was achieved by complementing the Moscow ABM site with successive generations of widespread warning and tracking radars networked with some 10,000 surface-to-air interceptors capable of bringing down both planes and longer-range missiles. That defense capability remains in place in Russia today, even as, in the United States, the ABM treaty continues to thwart the deployment of antimissile systems for the American homeland.

What is more, as the legal scholars Douglas J. Feith and George Miron have shown, there is no substance to the contention that the United States still has an international legal obligation to an accord whose other party has ceased to exist. The only way we could still be bound by the ABM treaty’s limitations, wrote James Woolsey, Clinton’s first CIA director, last August, would be if the U.S. Senate were to approve it all over again, together with changes made necessary by the USSR’s demise; otherwise, “there is nothing to abrogate.”

To be sure, none of this convinces the critics, who point to agreements signed during the Reagan and Bush administrations—the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty and the START I and II treaties, as well as the START III negotiations pursued by President Clinton—as evidence that the ABM accord does indeed work, functioning as a kind of umbrella under which both sides have eliminated hundreds of offensive nuclear missiles against which no defense need now be mounted. The Russians, for their part, have explicitly tied their adherence to these various arms-control accords to continued U.S. fealty to the ABM treaty. The current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, actually threatened at one point to abandon all of Russia’s arms-control obligations if the U.S. went ahead with even a limited national missile-defense system. It was this threat that Clinton translated into an effective veto over the start of construction of an NMD site in Alaska—and that critics of missile defense cite in arguing that President Bush must eschew any option other than what might be permissible under a “renegotiated” ABM treaty.

But Russia’s threats to break out of its other agreements need not be accepted at face value. Indeed, General Vladimir Yakovlev, the commander of Russia’s strategic rocket forces, has recently signaled that the Kremlin might be willing after all to accommodate itself to an American NMD deployment, even while making it clear that his country will extract whatever concessions it can for going along. Contrary to their own previous representations, and to the fears of many others, the Russians are evincing a pragmatism born of the same dire financial straits that have precluded them from retaining a cold-war-sized inventory of nuclear-armed missiles. If the choice is between acceding to an American defensive capability and destroying strategic arrangements with us that continue to serve their interests, there can be little doubt that they will choose the former.

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IV

The Russians’ response to a U.S. missile defense is not the only one that alarms the critics, some of whom believe that NMD would serve to detach the U.S. from its allies in Europe and around the world.

European leaders have indeed expressed concern over the Clinton scheme for missile defense—and not without reason. After all, the Alaska deployment to which they were being asked to lend their support—in some cases by agreeing to deploy or upgrade fixed radar installations on their own territory—was not only highly controversial in the United States itself but also ran counter to the arms-control orthodoxy they embraced at home: namely, that in a nuclear world the desired state of being is defenselessness. Worse yet, the administration’s system would protect only the United States, a prospect that drove even pro-American Europeans like Josef Joffe, co-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, to complain that, in pursuing NMD, Washington was doing violence to its alliance relationships.

Obviously a program that appears likely to “decouple” this country from European security concerns, while also creating inviting targets on allied soil, makes little sense. This is not to say, however, that a different approach to U.S. missile defenses—one that would lend itself directly to the task of defending allied territory as well as our own—would necessarily meet a similar reaction. A case in point would be a sea-based system. More than $50 billion has already been invested by the U.S. navy in building and deploying all over the world some 55 Aegis cruisers and destroyers. Thanks to their air-defense mission, these ships carry the missile launchers, sensors, communications systems, and even the personnel needed to begin providing a global infrastructure for missile defense. They could be fairly rapidly modified to start protecting both U.S. forces and U.S. allies overseas, as well as the American people here at home. I shall have more to say about this “Aegis option” below.

Critics also worry that deploying a truly national missile-defense system would spark an arms race with the People’s Republic of China, which has joined its “strategic partner,” Russia, in vociferously denouncing any such deployment. The reason is obvious: Beijing has no desire to see its currently modest arsenal—roughly a score of long-range, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles—rendered “impotent and obsolete” (in Ronald Reagan’s phrase). And so, despite the Clinton administration’s reassurances that the fledgling Alaska deployment would be unable to stop even China’s relatively small nuclear force, the Chinese have threatened to build up that force if the United States proceeds with NMD.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the PRC has long since embarked upon an ambitious plan to increase both the quality and the quantity of its long-range missile inventory, and is unlikely to be swayed one way or the other by the defensive actions of the U.S. What might make a difference would be a slowing of the technological assistance and financial underwriting Beijing has been obtaining for its ballistic-missile programs from us and other Western sources. A decision to stop enabling that effort, together with the deployment of effective U.S. defenses, would do far more to retard Beijing’s effort to enhance its offensive threat than a stand-down on NMD. The same goes, of course, for other “rogue states” far less able than China to purchase or develop offensive forces.

Which leads to another consideration that seems to have eluded those who believe that the United States can continue to deter nuclear attacks on its soil through the threat of massive retaliation. As former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry once observed, some of our potential adversaries may well be “undeterrable.” It is not clear, for example, that the prospect of assured retaliation would dissuade attacks by Islamic extremists like the mullahs of Iran, who urge martyrdom upon their adherents with promises that meeting one’s death while killing infidels will earn a reward in paradise. At the very least, missile defense would serve as an insurance policy in the event of a failure of deterrence against the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, or Kim Jong-II.

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V

But can missile defenses ever be truly effective? Leading critics argue that they cannot: the task of “hitting a bullet with a bullet” is simply beyond the capability of today’s scientists and engineers. At a minimum, they contend, the technology remains unproven. To the limited extent that tests have seemed successful, some critics charge, they have been insufficiently realistic or challenging, and/or the promoters of NMD have deliberately misrepresented actual performance results.

Basically, two technical challenges are involved in creating an effective defense against ballistic-missile attack: 1) designing, engineering, and manufacturing all of the component parts so that they will work together reliably; and 2) contending with countermeasures (decoys, chaff, mylar balloons, etc.) intended to confuse, overwhelm, or otherwise prevent the interception of an incoming warhead.

Opponents of missile defenses were quick to claim that the ground-based system being developed by the Clinton administration was incapable of meeting the first challenge, let alone the second, when the two most recent flight tests failed to intercept their targets. Both experiments were indeed disappointments, but the results were less damning than the critics suggest.

In the earlier of the two tests, the reason the “kill vehicle” did not smash into a simulated warhead as intended was that a sensor-cooling mechanism had stopped working in the final seconds of flight. This minor technical failure should not obscure the fact that the interceptor had successfully flown thousands of miles and had come within 200 feet of its target; in other words, the rest of the system worked very well indeed, and, absent this one malfunction, the kill vehicle would likely have performed its mission perfectly.

The more recent test apparently failed for an even more prosaic reason: the interceptor’s second and third stages did not separate as required, thus aborting the test altogether. But this, too, tells us nothing about the feasibility of an NMD system. The United States mastered the challenge of rocket “separation” some 50 years ago, and there is no reason to doubt our ability to minimize any repetition of the defect in future tests or in operational deployments. Confidence is all the more justified in light of one other fact—namely, that the very first of the flight tests of the NMD system did perform a successful interception of its target.

Naturally, critics have challenged that test, too. Theodore Postol of MIT has even accused the Pentagon of “systematically lying,” of rigging its tests to ensure success—especially by not including the countermeasures that might confront a deployed U.S. system—and of covering up identified technical shortcomings. The Pentagon has vehemently rejected these charges, asserting plausibly enough that NMD has simply followed the standard practice of most development programs (and, for that matter, most human endeavors): namely, starting with less ambitious objectives and only then proceeding to more daunting tasks.

Interestingly, an advisory panel of experts chaired by General Larry Welch—whose past criticisms, principally of the pace of NMD development, are often cited by Postol and others—urged that no countermeasures of any kind be incorporated in the system’s first intercept tests in order to keep them as simple as possible. Nor does the Welch panel’s most recent (and still classified) report, issued last June, appear to bear out the harshest of the critiques leveled by Postol and his colleagues. An unnamed senior administration official characterized that report in an interview with the Washington Post as giving the Pentagon “a ‘B-plus grade for work done thus far’ and . . . an overall blessing to the plans drawn up for future testing and evaluarion.” Added the official, “It is like remodeling a kitchen: it may not get done [by the date promised], but it will get done.”

This brings us to the second challenge: discriminating between nuclear warheads and whatever “penetration aids” an adversary might introduce as countermeasures. One obvious way to address this task is to perfect our “hit-to-kill” technology: that is, to ensure that our interceptors do actually collide with and destroy the right targets. In general, thanks to our technological edge, we are well-positioned to prevail in such measure-versus-countermeasure contests, a fact that in itself may discourage at least some would-be proliferators from trying to build or upgrade their limited offensive capabilities.

This is especially true insofar as there are real obstacles to fielding such countermeasures. Some of those obstacles have been outlined, in response to Postol’s criticisms, by Thad Cochran, the Mississippi Republican who chairs the Senate Proliferation Subcommittee. Not only, Cochran noted, are countermeasures subject to the same scientific reality as the weapons systems they are intended to frustrate—namely, they are “relatively easy to conceive” but quite another matter altogether to transform “from the realm of ideas into hardware”—but other factors come into play as well:

[C]ountermeasures aren’t free. Every counter-measure which someone attempts to put on a ballistic missile costs real money. Countermeasures also consume weight and space, which means lowered performance or less payload. Countermeasures introduce complexity, which means more things can go wrong and engineers must spend more time trying to ensure they go right. Engineers trying to perfect countermeasures are diverted from other activities they could be working on, such as extending a missile’s range or improving its reliability. In short, successful pursuit of countermeasures means sacrificing something else, and some may not choose to make that sacrifice.

Aside from better hit-to-kill interceptors and effective discrimination techniques, the United States has other options as well. Most desirable of all would be the development and fielding of “boost-phase” systems—that is, defenses capable of destroying ballistic missiles in the earliest, powered portion of their trajectory. At that stage they are moving most slowly; they are easily detected and tracked with infrared sensors; and, because they are full of highly combustible liquid or solid fuel, they are exceedingly vulnerable to attack. Best of all, they have not yet deployed their warheads and whatever penetration aids they may be carrying. The prospect that the chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons contained in these warheads may come crashing down upon the launcher’s own territory could be a singularly persuasive deterrent to initiating an attack.

Boost-phase interceptions can be most efficiently accomplished from space. The United States has the technology in hand or under development to put “kinetic-kill” weapons and lasers into orbit, from where they can locate, track, and destroy missiles during their boost phase, irrespective of the launch point around the world. Properly configured and situated sea-based systems may be able to perform some boost-phase interceptions as well.

Another, less desirable option is to adopt the “brute force” method. The original U.S. and Soviet antiballistic-missile programs relied upon interceptors equipped with small nuclear weapons—and so does the system the Russians have deployed today. By detonating such a device outside the atmosphere, in close proximity to the incoming warhead and its “cloud” of accompanying penetration aids, one can be confident that both the real reentry vehicle and everything masquerading as it will be destroyed.

Concerns about utilizing nuclear weapons in such a role were among the reasons the United States abandoned its limited Safeguard ABM program in 1974, several months after it became operational. They have also been a driving force behind the effort since 1983 to find nonnuclear kill mechanisms. Still, against a prospective attack by a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon-tipped missile, any and all steps need to be considered. And, as with boost-phase defenses, one cannot rule out the possibility that the possession of such systems could in itself act powerfully to deter an adversary contemplating an attack against us.

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It bears repeating that the technical challenges to NMD have been greatly, and unnecessarily, compounded by the special constraints under which the missile-defense program has operated from the start. Past challenges of comparable difficulty—building the first atomic bomb, or the first space-launch vehicles, or nuclear-powered submarines—were accorded the highest national priority; in the face of reverses, and there were many, the response was to redouble the effort and to increase the resources required for it. The opposite has been more nearly the case with NMD, a program not only hobbled by our adherence to the ABM treaty but vociferously opposed at every step of the way by the arms-control community and its sympathizers.

Rightly so, a determined critic might insist. For, he would maintain, the claims made on behalf of NMD are very grand, and the projected expense connected with such a system is enormous. And for what? Even the best defense would likely have some leakage—a fact that, for a nation relying on it, could well prove catastrophic. A system that is less than absolutely perfect may not be worth having at all, such a critic would conclude, and a system that is absolutely perfect is not to be had.

In fact, missile defense was never conceived by its planners in the Utopian terms its scoffers like to evoke, and the idea that only infallible weapons merit development and deployment flies in the face of all of military history. In Operation Desert Storm, American forces and U.S. allies alike made it clear that they preferred some defense against ballistic missiles to none at all. Besides, an adversary contemplating an attack in the face of even partially effective defenses could never know whether his warheads would succeed in reaching their targets and, if so, which ones they would be. This in itself may create an additional disincentive to launching a strike in the first place—particularly if the consequences of doing so would be certain and devastating retaliation by a still wholly or mainly unscathed United States.

Yet, a critic might now counter, even if we somehow could field perfect missile defenses, the whole exercise would be useless against attack by means other than missiles. Our porous borders permit the bringing-in of all sorts of weapons of mass destruction via airplane, ship, or truck—perhaps, it has been sarcastically suggested, even inside a bale of marijuana.

Indisputably, the United States is at risk of non-missile attack by terrorists and their state sponsors, and is hardly better equipped against such attacks today than it is against the missile-borne kind. This, however, is an argument for improving our defenses against all these threats; it is hardly an argument for leaving ourselves vulnerable to ballistic missiles. Prudent homeowners purchase insurance against both fire and theft.

There is, in this connection, another aspect to the missile threat: its political utility. Whereas terrorists, in order credibly to blackmail or coerce, must be active and overt, states with missiles can blackmail and coerce just by retaining credible capabilities. This has long been evident to the People’s Republic of China, whose senior officials on several occasions have reminded their American counterparts of China’s ability to use nuclear-armed missiles against American cities in the event we came to the aid of Taiwan in a Sino-Taiwanese conflict. Sure enough, our response has been placatory; we have emphasized and strengthened our ties to Beijing and distanced ourselves from our democratic allies in Taipei. Similarly, the mere fact of North Korea’s missile programs has secured for Pyongyang international standing, diplomatic blandishments, technology, and hundreds of millions of dollars in food, oil, and other assistance from Washington.

The lesson is not lost on other rogue states contemplating our defenselessness. How long will it go on being lost on us?

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VI

In principle, the new President has a number of options available to him if he means to honor his commitment to protect the American people and U.S. forces and allies overseas “at the earliest possible time.”

Those options include, obviously, the ground-based system President Clinton had under development, which called for an initial deployment of up to 100 surface-to-air missile interceptors in Alaska. The Clinton plan also contemplated an eventual second deployment at another location to ensure coverage of all U.S. states and territories.

For the purposes of detection and tracking, these weapons would rely upon a network of large radars in the United States—including one on the Aleutians’ barren Shemya Island—and, as we have seen, on allied territory elsewhere around the world. Even though this system was designed to be of very limited scope—the initial deployment would be capable of defending against only a handful of simultaneously incoming warheads and provide protection only to parts of the United States—its cost would be substantial: according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, the first site would require approximately $60 billion to build and operate over the next fifteen years.

Other options include an airborne laser aboard modified Boeing commercial aircraft; space-based infrared and other sensors; and orbiting lasers or kinetic-kill weapons that would be able to destroy incoming missiles and/or warheads during their boost phase or in mid-course. And then there is the Aegis option: a sea-based deployment using the infrastructure offered by the navy’s Aegis fleet and weapons currently being developed to intercept shorter-range missiles.

A truly robust capability, of the sort pledged by Bush while he was running for office, would probably involve some combination of these systems. Depending on the precise composition of such a “layered” defense, the associated costs for acquisition and operation could either be less or considerably more than the $60 billion estimated for the Clinton-proposed system alone.

As a practical matter, however, only the Aegis option holds out much prospect of a near-term, flexible, effective, and affordable defense. The opportunity to provide such an alternative relatively quickly, and, thanks to the navy’s prior investment, at a fraction of the cost of the Clinton program, is what presumably contributed to Bush’s favorable mention of the Aegis option in the course of the campaign. It would make a great deal of sense to press forward on this front, particularly in light of Colin Powell’s worrisome suggestion, following his selection as Bush’s choice for Secretary of State, that the Pentagon be asked to undertake a comprehensive and, of necessity, time-consuming examination of all available technologies. Given how fast midterm electioneering will begin, and given inertia, bureaucratic foot-dragging, and the accumulated powers of the nay-sayers, the President has a narrow window within which to act if the nation is not to remain vulnerable to missile attack for the foreseeable future.

If it were to fulfill Bush’s promise, the administration would serve notice immediately that, in six-months’ time, the United States will start the process of deploying missile defenses—at first, under the Aegis option, from the sea. It would, of course, take some time to complete this process. The initial systems would have limited, if any, capability against most fast-flying, long-range ballistic missiles. They would, however, be effective against shorter-range missile threats to our troops and friends overseas. By authorizing such sums as are needed immediately out of existing missile-defense funds, preparing to secure additional funding from Congress on an emergency basis, and mandating that streamlined acquisition procedures be followed, the President could ensure a measure of protection as soon as is technologically possible.

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In so doing, Bush would be fulfilling the requirements of the Missile Defense Act of 1999, which was passed by overwhelming Republican and Democratic majorities in the Senate and House and signed into law by President Clinton. What is more, the Aegis approach has been endorsed by several prominent Democrats, including former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and former Deputy Secretaries of Defense John White and John Deutch. It has likewise won the support of a number of congressional Democrats, as well as leading Republicans like Senator John McCain.

This announcement of an early start to deployment would also effectively notify the world that we are dispensing once and for all with the obsolete, legally defunct, and increasingly dangerous Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. It would do so, moreover, without suggesting that we consider the accord still legally binding by giving formal notice, pursuant to its provisions, of our intent to “withdraw.”

It is past time, in short, to stop debating and start acting. Were the administration to proceed, it would no doubt find itself with a fight on its hands. But there is also little doubt that it would enjoy by far the better arguments, and that many in both political parties would rally to its side. The key is to begin, and “at the earliest possible moment.”

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1 Although Bill Clinton persisted in believing that he could talk Kim out of continuing these programs, the North’s track record to date would suggest otherwise.

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