Ballistic missile defense sounds on the surface like a good idea. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just make those nasty nuclear weapons harmless? That is, their nuclear weapons, not ours. We don’t worry much about the threat posed by our own nuclear weapons, but these, of course, are not aimed at us. They are aimed at others or, more accurately, they are presently aimed at the oceans if we are to believe Mr. Clinton. They can, however, be reprogrammed to strike anywhere on only a moment’s notice.

Our nuclear weapons still pose a security problem to us because relying on nuclear weapons for security means that there will be other countries that will do so as well, and the result will be that we are targeted by their nuclear weapons. Ballistic missile defense, if we are to believe its proponents, offers a technological solution to this dilemma. It is, however, an unproven and unprovable solution and comes at a high price, both monetarily and in terms of security.

Ballistic missile defense was pushed by the Reagan administration. In that early incarnation it was derided “Star Wars.” Since then, it has gone through many more incarnations, the latest of which is a land-based National Missile Defense (NMD) system that is intended to defend against an attack by relatively small and technologically unsophisticated countries such as North Korea, Iran, Iraq or Libya. None of these countries, however, currently has ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. No matter, we are told by proponents of NMD; it is better to be prepared for any eventuality.

Despite repeated assurances from our government that an NMD would not be designed to protect the US against a Russian attack, the Russians are not convinced. From their perspective, an NMD would undermine their deterrence capability. Even though the NMD would have only 100 to 200 interceptor missiles and the Russians would have more missiles than this aimed at the US, the Russians are concerned on two grounds. First, it would create the possibility that the US could initiate a first-strike nuclear attack against Russia and use the NMD simply to deal with the presumably small remaining number of Russian missiles that survived the attack. This scenario may sound far-fetched to us since we don’t envision ever doing such a thing. The Russians, however, cannot dismiss this scenario since they, like us, base their nuclear strategy on just such worst-case scenarios. The second reason for Russian concern about US deployment of a NMD system is that, although initially the system might have only 100 to 200 interceptor missiles, more could be added later.

The Russians have made it clear that if the US goes forward in deploying an NMD system this could spell the end of arms control with the Russians. Implementation of an NMD system would require the US to abrogate or violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that was entered into between the US and Russia in 1972. The purpose of the treaty was to prevent a defensive arms race that could lead to a renewed offensive nuclear arms race. The ABM Treaty has been at the heart of arms control efforts between the two countries for most of the past three decades. If the treaty fails due to US plans to deploy NMD, the Russians have said that they will withdraw from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), will pull out of the START II agreements, in which the two countries have agreed to lower the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads on each side to 3,000 to 3,500, and will refuse to negotiate further nuclear reductions under proposed START III agreements.

Under proposed START III agreements, the Russians have put forward a proposal for further reducing nuclear arsenals to 1,500 or less on each side. Thus far, the US has responded by saying that it is only willing to go down to 2,500 to 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons.

The stakes of NMD deployment in our relationship with Russia are very high. They are no less so in our relations with China. Currently China has some 20 nuclear weapons capable of reaching US territory. If the US deploys an NMD with 100 to 200 interceptor missiles, the Chinese have indicated that they will proceed with building and deploying more nuclear-armed missiles capable of overcoming this system and reaching the United States.

You might ask: why would Russia or China take these steps since it is highly likely that a US NMD system would be ineffective? The answer is that the Russian and Chinese planners must plan for the system to work as the US plans it to work; to do less would be viewed by their security establishments as being irresponsible. Thus, whether or not a US NMD system works, it would be viewed by Russia and China as provocative and would most likely lead to new arms races.

The arms races would not be limited to the three countries in question. If China increases its strategic nuclear arsenal, India (which views China as a potential threat) would probably follow suit. If India increases its nuclear arsenal, Pakistan would certainly follow suit. There has also been talk of Theater Missile Defense in North Asia, which could have similar effects throughout Asia, and of deploying a Theater Missile Defense in the Middle East, which would underline the nuclear imbalance in the region.

Will the deployment of an NMD system make the US more secure? It is doubtful. Because of the geopolitical implications described above, it will probably make the US less secure. If this is true, why is there such a strong push within the US government to deploy an NMD system? Why did the Congress vote overwhelmingly to deploy such a system “as soon as technologically feasible”? I think there are two reasons. First, a NMD system plays well in Peoria. It gives the impression of improving security even if it does just the opposite. Second, it provides a welfare program for the military-industrial complex in the aftermath of the Cold War. It provides a way of transferring substantial funding (ranging from $60 to $120 billion or even higher) from the American taxpayer to the defense industry. This is a cynical way for politicians to fulfill their obligations under the Constitution to provide for the common security of the American people.

But could the system actually work? Anything is possible theoretically, but it is highly unlikely. Up to the present, tests of defensive missiles have failed to consistently and reliably shoot down incoming missiles, even when there is only one missile to destroy and it is known when and from where the missile will be launched. Many experts have argued that it will be far easier for offensive missile attacks to overcome defensive systems by using decoys to trick the defensive missiles.

Rather than pursuing the delusion of missile defense, US officials would be better off pursuing another course of action. First, they could seek to develop policies that would make friends of potential enemies. There seems to be some progress on this front in relation to US-North Korean relations. Second, and most important, the US should take a leadership role in fulfilling its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty for good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament. The International Court of Justice has stated that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is generally illegal and that all nuclear weapons states are obligated to achieve nuclear disarmament “in all its aspects.”

At the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, promises were made to preserve and strengthen the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty “as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons.” US plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses, either nationally or regionally, are at odds with these promises. Also, at this Review Conference, the nuclear weapons states promised an “unequivocal undertaking” to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. This is where the US, as the world’s economically and militarily most powerful country, must now provide needed leadership. Plans to deploy a US National Missile Defense will undermine this possibility. The results could be disastrous not only for US security but also for our credibility in the world.

The articles that follow provide international perspectives on US plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses. They reinforce each other in the view that this would be a dangerous and foolhardy path for the United States to pursue.