The Common Good
July-August 1999

Star Wars Returns

by Jonathan Dean | July-August 1999

The not-so-phantom menace of missile defense.

The U.S. has spent nearly $70 billion on missile defense since President Reagan’s 1983 Star Wars proposal. Deployment of nationwide missile defenses would be a serious obstacle to nuclear disarmament by the United States and by all governments that possess nuclear weapons. And it is doubtful whether a projected U.S. nationwide defense system would be effective.

Despite all this, the Senate and House of Representatives voted by large majorities this spring to deploy a "thin" nationwide system of defenses against limited ballistic missile attack, intended at the outset to be able to destroy 12 to 20 attacking warheads. The president is expected to sign this legislation, which represents a statement of intention to deploy a nationwide missile defense system.

There has been much controversy over the feasibility and potential consequences of missile defense, a system of ground-based (for now) rockets designed to attack and destroy incoming ballistic missiles traveling at tremendous speed and aimed at any part of the country. The purpose of the system now under discussion is to defend against a limited long-range biological or nuclear attack by "rogue" countries.

Construction of a nationwide missile defense system would violate the terms of the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. The ABM treaty forbids nationwide missile defense, use of space- or sea-based sensors, and use of more than one site for defense. It is anticipated that the planned system would violate all these restrictions. Consequently, the ABM treaty would have to be amended or annulled to permit deployment of the proposed U.S. system.

Russia has already criticized the U.S. action as undermining the treaty. China too has criticized the new legislation. In a related development, China has disputed possible U.S. action to provide theater missile defenses to Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea as "hostile."

TESTS OF RELATED shorter range systems have thus far been largely failures. Moreover, countries that have the technology to deliver long-range ballistic missiles almost certainly have the technology to equip their missiles with decoys that could foil or mislead the sensors guiding the defense systems. However, although the effectiveness of missile defense is open to question, other governments have to assume that, ultimately, missile defenses could be improved. Consequently, both Russia and China fear that deployment of the planned U.S. missile defense system could give the United States decisive military advantage over them.

This can be illustrated by the case of China, which today may have 20 single-warhead missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory. If the United States deploys a defense system, one response for China is to increase the size of its arsenal in the same way the United States itself did in the late 1960s in order to overcome emerging Soviet missile defenses—by increasing the number of its offensive missiles and by increasing the number of warheads carried by each missile.

For Russia, which has a much larger arsenal of nuclear weapons than China, the answer is not to reduce its deployed forces so that they could be neutralized by American defenses. To limit the possibility of American military advantage from missile defenses, Russia may decide to cooperate in amending the ABM treaty or even developing its own missile defenses. This will not change the basic situation—that the introduction of missile defenses in the United States will freeze world nuclear arsenals at high levels and may even increase them.

The military advantage of missile defenses for the possessor government increases as nuclear arsenals become smaller. Consequently, the deployment of nationwide missile defenses would be a serious and enduring obstacle to the fulfillment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other efforts toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

JONATHAN DEAN is the adviser on international security issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists. A former ambassador, Dean served for 35 years in the State Department, with experience on NATO-Warsaw Pact conventional and nuclear arms control, negotiating access to Berlin with the then-Soviet Union, and on peacekeeping

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