Following World War I, the French decided to build a line of defense that would make them invulnerable to future attack by Germany. They created a 400-mile stretch of defensive installations known as the Maginot Line. It was considered quite high-tech for the time, and the French took great pride in it. When the Germans invaded and quickly defeated France in World War II, they simply went around the Maginot Line. One wonders if there is a lesson here that might apply to the current US plans to develop and deploy a missile defense system to protect against ballistic missiles launched by small hostile nations.

Imagine this scenario. The United States proceeds with its plans to create a National Missile Defense system. The system employs the latest technology considered capable of shooting and destroying a ballistic missile launched at the United States. The system costs some $100 to $200 billion that might have been used to provide health care and education for America’s youth. Nonetheless, proponents of the system are proud of their accomplishment. They have built a defensive system that will protect the United States against missile attacks by countries such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq — should these countries ever acquire nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Let’s further imagine that a decade into the future Saddam Hussein succeeds in obtaining a few nuclear warheads and a ballistic missile delivery system capable of reaching the US. The proponents of the National Missile Defense system feel justified in their vision because their system will protect the US from a nuclear-armed missile attack by Saddam Hussein. Now, Hussein may be belligerent, aggressive and hostile to the United States, but he is not suicidal. He decides against attacking an American city by means of a missile attack, which could be traced back to him. Instead he arranges for a nuclear weapon to be smuggled into the US by ship, truck or plane. Of course, only a few trusted accomplices know that it is him who has made these arrangements. In this modern-day Maginot Line-type scenario, a determined enemy would simply go around the defense or, in this case, under it.

In a different scenario, incoming missiles from a potential enemy might go right through the missile shield. Many experts believe that it will not be difficult to develop offensive measures to overcome the defensive shield. MIT scientists Theodore Postol and George Lewis write: “The Pentagon claims that the warhead and the ineffective large balloon decoy it is testing against are representative of the missile threat from an idealized imagined adversary an adversary presumed to be capable of building intercontinental range ballistic missiles, and nuclear warheads that are sufficiently light and compact to be mounted on such missiles, but at the same time so bungling as to be unable to hide the warhead inside a Mylar balloon decoy released along with empty balloons or to build warhead-shaped cone decoys.” In other words, it is quite possible that after spending upwards of $100 billion to create a missile defense, the shield will prove to be ineffective against an adversary sophisticated enough to develop decoys along with ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads.

Unfortunately, the fact that the planned National Missile Defense is likely to be wasteful and ineffective is not the worst of it. The truly dangerous aspect of moving forward with deployment of missile defenses is what it will do to our relations with Russia and China. Both countries are strongly opposed to a US defensive shield because of their fear that it will create a US first-strike potential. From the Russian and Chinese point of view, the shield would allow the US to attack them in a surprise first-strike, and then use the shield to destroy any of their remaining missiles that might be launched at the US in response. Their planners, like ours, must think in terms of worst-case scenarios.

In 1972 the US and the former Soviet Union entered into a treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, prohibiting the development of a national missile defense. Both countries understood that the development of defensive systems would further spur offensive arms races, and that limitations on defense would create the conditions necessary to reduce offensive nuclear arsenals. The ABM Treaty has provided the basis for progress on nuclear disarmament through the START I and II treaties.

The new US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has been dismissive of the ABM Treaty referring to it as “ancient history,” and publicly suggesting that the treaty is no longer relevant because the Soviet Union no longer exists. At a recent meeting on European security policy in Munich, Rumsfeld, referring to the ABM Treaty, stated: “It was a long time ago that that treaty was fashioned. Technologies were noticeably different. The Soviet Union, our partner in that agreement, doesn’t exist any more.”

The Russians, however, continue to view this treaty as the foundation of all current and future arms control agreements. The Russian security chief, Sergei Ivanov, responded at the same meeting, “Destruction of the ABM treaty, we are quite confident, will result in the annihilation of the whole structure of strategic stability and create prerequisites for a new arms race including one in space.” Jacques Chirac, the President of France, agrees, having stated that a US missile defense “cannot fail to re-launch an arms race in the world.” This eventuality stands in dramatic contrast to the Russian proposal by President Putin to reduce nuclear arsenals to 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons or below in START III negotiations.

Sha Zukang, the Director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of Arms Control and Disarmament, has described the Chinese position on US missile defenses in this way: “To defeat your defenses we’ll have to spend a lot of money, and we don’t want to do this. But otherwise, the United States will feel it can attack anyone at any time, and that isn’t tolerable. We hope [America] will give this up. If not, we’ll be ready.”

Thus, US plans for missile defenses are a high-stakes game. While they aim at providing security against an improbable future attack by a small nation, they antagonize the other major nuclear powers in the world and are likely to lead to new arms races. While this may be beneficial for weapons producers, it is likely to undermine rather than enhance the security of people everywhere, including Americans.

The United States agreed with more than 185 other nations at the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that it was necessary to preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty “as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons.” We also agreed, along with the other declared nuclear weapons states to an “unequivocal undertaking” to achieve the total elimination of nuclear weapons. By proceeding with plans to deploy a National Missile Defense system, the US is turning these promises made in the context of preventing nuclear proliferation into empty rhetoric.

If the US is serious about keeping these promises and achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons from the world, it should take the following steps:

  • Reaffirm its commitment to the 1972 ABM Treaty;
  • Provide leadership in developing an effective ballistic missile control regime to prevent the spread of this technology;
  • Continue negotiations with states of concern such as North Korea in an effort to find solutions to outstanding problems;
  • Commence good faith negotiations to achieve a Nuclear Weapons Convention requiring the phased elimination of all nuclear weapons, with provisions for effective verification and enforcement;
  • Take steps to diminish the political importance of nuclear weapons such as de-alerting nuclear weapons, separating warheads from delivery vehicles, adopting clear policies of No First Use of nuclear weapons, and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Security from nuclear threat does not reside in building a Maginot Line in the Sky. Rather, it lies in making the good faith efforts promised long ago to seek the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the world. There is only one way to assure that nuclear weapons will not be used again, and that is to abolish them.

*David Krieger is the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.