The Slate Gist

National Missile Defense

The Clinton administration is bound by law to decide by mid-2000 whether or not to begin deployment of a limited defense against long-range missiles. What is the history of missile defense? Could a missile system protect the United States? Which nations pose the greatest threat to this country? And what are the diplomatic repercussions of building such a system?

In 1967, the Johnson administration proposed the “Sentinel” missile defense network to defend against Chinese missile attack. Two years later, President Richard Nixon touted an even more limited “Safeguard” system to defend the United States’ missile silos. As permitted by the ABM Treaty inked with Moscow in 1972, the Ford administration unveiled an $8 billion, 100-missile site in North Dakota in 1975. That site was closed only a few months later as a waste of money. China, meanwhile, did not produce a missile that could hit North America until 1979.

President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Star Wars” speech resurrected the missile defense debate. Ten years and $27 billion later nothing had been built. Instead, President George Bush started plumping for a $72 billion space-based “Brilliant Pebbles” defense system. Its mission was to knock out 200 missiles carrying Russian warheads fired by accident or Chinese weapons fired by hubris.

The technology wasn’t there for Brilliant Pebbles, and in 1993 the Clinton administration announced the “end of the Star Wars era.” Missile defense spending puttered along in research mode until July 1998 when a U.S. study warned of the potential for missile mayhem by such “rogue nations” as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. A month later, North Korea fired a three-stage rocket over Japan. The rocket failed to orbit its satellite but demonstrated Pyongyang’s unsuspected ballistic prowess. Then, last July, the GOP Congress maneuvered Clinton into signing a law pledging action as soon as possible–which means building a running missile defense system by 2005.

Current plans envision spending $10.5 billion through 2005 to deploy perhaps 20 high-speed interceptor missiles in Alaska that could deal only with a handful of incoming warheads. U.S. radars around the world would be upgraded to service this site, which could eventually be bolstered by other ground-, ship-, and aircraft-based anti-missile weapons.

Strategically, few dispute the merits of perfecting “theater” defenses, such as the upgraded Patriot missile to swat down low-flying shorter-range missiles on overseas battlefields, but the genuine operational need for a missile defense system for the U.S. homeland remains a much-gnawed bone of contention.

Over $100 billion in current dollars has been spent on missile defense since the early ‘60s, but the task of hitting a hypersonic bullet with a bullet remains a ticklish one. Even if the feat could be pulled off under laboratory conditions, real-world attackers would load their missiles with decoy warheads to foil or complicate interdiction. Critics insist that relatively cheap countermeasures will always trump costly missile defenses.

After numerous highly publicized failures, the Pentagon this year successfully tested both its medium-range Theater High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile and a prototype of the long-range, high-speed Ground-Based Interceptor slated for the Alaska site. But only four of 19 planned interceptor tests will be completed by the time Clinton must make his go or no-go decision to deploy next year. An independent study funded by the Pentagon warned in mid-November that hasty deployment of the system could undermine its eventual success.

In a recently declassified estimate, the CIA projected that over the next 15 years the United States will face missile threats from “Russia, China and North Korea, probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq.” Russia today is struggling to maintain some 4,500 warheads mounted on about 1,000 missiles. Washington has long abandoned thoughts of defending against a full Russian onslaught–even a launch unauthorized by Moscow would easily swamp the proposed U.S. defenses. In any event, the CIA terms an accidental Russian firing “highly unlikely so long as current technical and procedural safeguards are in place.”

China today boasts some 20 missiles that could hit the United States and is working to supplement that force with more survivable, mobile launchers. China could never trump the warhead blizzard Washington would send in retaliation against any atomic attack, though the country would be loath to cede to U.S. missile defenses the deterrence afforded by its handfuls of warheads. Beijing’s opposition seems to be driven more by apprehension that Washington might provide theater missile defenses to Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province. Also the recently declassified CIA assessment assumes that the “rogue states” are likely to view their few ICBMs more as weapons of deterrence and coercive diplomacy than as weapons of war.

The crux of the strategic controversy is whether an imperfect homeland defense could eliminate the deterrent and coercive impact of small rogue missile forces. Any nation determined to explode a nuclear bomb in Uncle Sam’s front yard would have to be insane to deliver the insult by missile–it might as well affix a return address to the weapon before firing. Detonating a smuggled warhead in the hold of a ship docked in, say, New York harbor would make much more sense, while avoiding the huge expense and trouble of building complex intercontinental rockets. If this logic holds, missile defense is a job for U.S. Customs, not the Pentagon.

Yet the prospect of an atomic apocalypse is so terrible that few can argue against spending tens of billions of dollars for insurance against remote possibilities. Here’s where the debate enters the diplomatic arena. Could this anti-missile insurance policy reawaken a Cold War confrontation thought dead, lo, these past 10 years?

The 1972 ABM Treaty permits the United States and Russia to deploy 100 interceptors to defend either a missile field or the national capital. (The Russians chose to guard Moscow with their 100 anti-missiles.) Even the initial 20 anti-missiles slated for Alaska would violate this pact due to their nationwide coverage. If Clinton blinks the green light next summer, Washington would be in breach of the treaty by mid-2001, if it hopes to meet the 2005 deadline.

The State Department has asked Moscow to amend the ABM Treaty–which most missile defense proponents view as an outdated Cold War dinosaur anyway. Against the backdrop of the U.S. bombing campaign against Serbia, tension over the civil war in Chechnya, and Congress’ failure to ratify a treaty banning nuclear tests, a Russian political establishment drifting toward intransigence seems unlikely to give the United States a free pass on missile defenses. The Russians might respond to a breached ABM Treaty by abandoning other treaties designed to further reduce the current stock of U.S. and Russian warheads. Thus, the construction of a limited shield against North Korea might spark a renewed nuclear arms race with Russia and ultimately reduce U.S. security.

The missile defense debate has been as much about faith and ideological fervor as about logic and rational calculation. If the past is any guide, Clinton’s National Missile Defense will probably be stymied by the same technical, diplomatic, and financial factors that doomed Johnson’s Sentinel, Nixon’s Safeguard, Reagan’s Star Wars, and Bush’s Brilliant Pebbles.