To an extent seldom seen since Cold War days, the continuing angry debate over the need for a National Missile Defense (NMD) system has polarized public opinion. Pros and cons are put forward in increasingly strident confrontations which lead not to understanding or accommodation but to divisive, emotional rejection of opposing views. What is there about NMD that produces heat – not light – when the issue arises?
The answer to that question lies in the political schism between the true believers in NMD and those who counsel other measures to reduce nuclear dangers. The believers argue emotionally that American citizens deserve a defense against missile attack and reject out of hand attempts to raise rational objections to NMD. The opponents are denigrated and their patriotism impugned if they dare to question the need for or feasibility of NMD.
This failure to discuss NMD in civil, factual terms is unfortunate because the decision to deploy a National Missile Defense system raises fundamental issues of America’s role in the world. It involves our relationships not only with our adversaries but with our closest allies as well. It is not surprising that Russia and China are loud critics of NMD but Germany, France, Great Britain and other western nations are also questioning the wisdom of proceeding with a program which threatens to ignite a new nuclear arms race. It may be possible to shrug off understandable criticism from potential enemies, but we must give thoughtful consideration and great weight to the same criticism from our friends. The need for public debate leading to a constructive decision has never been greater.
For example, a final decision to deploy NMD must await careful evaluation of four criteria: 1) There must be a real threat; 2) We must have the technological means to address that threat effectively; 3) Our response must be affordable; and 4) NMD deployment must not do unacceptable damage to the stability of current and future international security arrangements. There are serious questions concerning each of these criteria .
As to the threat, it does not now exist. Although some say that North Korea could create a missile capable of reaching the United States by 2005, the consensus is that it will be years later, if ever, that they would have both the missile and a weapon which could be fitted to it. And why would they, or any rogue nation, invest in such a costly, challenging venture when there are far more feasible means of delivering a weapon against us? For example, a crude nuclear device (which could never be fitted to a missile) could easily be welded in the hull of a tramp steamer and sail unchallenged into any U.S. port. Furthermore, any missile fired at America carries a very clear return address, insuring massive U.S. retaliation. The fact is that NMD would be a defense against the least likely means of attack on America while providing no protection whatever against clandestine, less costly, more reliable means of attack.
To date, despite spending more than $60 billion on NMD since 1983, the technological challenges have not been met. Repeated tests have failed far more often than they have succeeded and even the successes have been limited or suspect. The decoy problem has not been solved nor has the required complex of space based sensors, “X” brand radars, interceptors and command and control facilities been designed and built. Many independent scientists have concluded that there will never be any way to test such a system realistically even when it is in place in order to have high confidence that it would work the first time it was needed.
As to cost, the only thing that has been demonstrated is that each estimate is higher than the previous one. As noted, after more than $60 billion have been spent, there is no assurance that another $60 or $120 billion will produce a reliable NMD. Nor is there any confidence that a competent adversary could not develop effective countermeasures to NMD at far less cost than we invest.
Finally, the most important criterion remains unresolved; i.e., the need to maintain the current stability of the nuclear balance by protecting present and future arms control arrangements. What good does a defense system do if it weakens nuclear stability which rests on a hard-won arms control structure built over the last 30 years? Repeated U.S. threats to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 ignore the truth that there is a comprehensive arms control structure within which the individual treaties are interdependent. The first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement of 1972 (SALT I) was negotiated in tandem with the ABM Treaty as complementary measures, neither one possible without the other. Subsequently the SALT II agreement and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and II) were erected on the SALT I/ABM foundation. The existence of this stabilizing arms control structure was recognized by other nations (most importantly by China) and thereby inhibited the expansion of other nuclear arsenals as well as contributed to global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. To pull out a keystone of arms control by abrogation of the ABM Treaty now will weaken nuclear stability worldwide, particularly in the sensitive area of Chinese, Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs.
Of equal concern is that NMD will certainly be a bar to progress on future arms control agreements which are essential to achieve genuine reductions in still bloated nuclear arsenals. President Jacques Chirac of France identified this problem when he declared: “Nuclear disarmament will be more difficult when powerful countries are developing new technologies [NMD] to enhance their nuclear capabilities.” The great danger is that other nations, most notably China and Russia, will seek to enhance their own nuclear capabilities in response to the deployment of an American NMD system. In the political effort to justify deployment of defenses against a highly unlikely threat, the United States can undo significant arms control measures and end up facing much greater real nuclear dangers.
This is why all Americans should care deeply about the decision to deploy a National Missile Defense system. By such an action we will signal to the world that we are willing to pursue illusory defenses against non-existent threats even though we subject all nations to continued nuclear competition and increased risks of a future nuclear war.