The Common Good
May-June 2000

A Rush to Failure

by David Cortright | May-June 2000

Missile defense: the wrong path to security.

Like the Titanic speeding toward that fateful iceberg, the United States is heading toward disaster. The impending decision to deploy national missile defenses could significantly increase nuclear dangers, undermining the foundations of arms control and provoking military countermeasures from Russia and China.

Building a defense against ballistic missiles has been a chimera of Republican orthodoxy since Ronald Reagan proposed a Star Wars shield during the 1980s to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." The current missile defense plan has a more limited design: to parry missiles from so-called rogue nations. The goal is no longer to fend off thousands of Russian warheads but to counter limited attack from North Korea, Iran, or other imagined foes. The Clinton administration has endorsed the Republican plan and has vowed to make a deployment decision this summer.

Despite the expenditure of more than $60 billion over the past 15 years (spending in 2000 will total $4 billion), the missile defense establishment has yet to produce a single piece of hardware with a proven ability to knock out long range missiles. All the tests for the system have been either complete failures or partial successes that were performed under highly controlled conditions unlikely to exist in the event of an actual missile attack. Even the Pentagon’s own review panel, headed by retired Air Force Gen. Lawrence Welch, has admitted that the technology for national missile defense does not yet exist and termed the drive for rapid development a "rush to failure."

Flawed tests are no obstacle to missile defense zealots in Congress, however. When the latest interceptor missed its target over the Pacific in January 2000, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott blithely brushed aside the failure and ruled out any delay.

THE WHITE HOUSE is attempting to negotiate changes in the ABM treaty that would permit limited defenses, but to date Moscow has balked. Russian officials want the United States to agree to significant reductions in offensive weapons. They have warned that deployment without a negotiated bargain could scuttle the entire arms reduction process. The commander of Russian missile forces, Gen. Vladimir Yakovlyev, declared that Moscow might respond to U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty by re-deploying multiple nuclear warheads on land-based missiles. During a September 1999 test of the new Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile, Russian officials said that the new missile would be able to "break through" the missile defense system of "a probable enemy."

China has also objected to U.S. missile defense plans. Beijing is likely to adopt its own countermeasures if U.S. missile defense proceeds, including an increase in its arsenal of offensive weapons and ballistic missiles.

These threatened reactions from Russia and China illustrate why the ABM treaty was negotiated in the first place. The building of strategic defenses prompts an increase in offensive capabilities. It erodes the supposed equilibrium upon which nuclear deterrence depends.

The only exception would be a situation of genuine nuclear disarmament. If the major powers were to commit themselves to eliminating nuclear weapons, the objections to missile defense would diminish. Of course, if nuclear weapons were being eliminated, one could argue that there would be no need for missile defenses. However, as Jonathon Schell has argued, strategic defenses might provide an extra layer of protection against nuclear cheating or breakout. This reassurance could help generate public confidence in a nuclear abolition agreement. Such defenses would have to be part of a mutually agreed upon global system.

This assumes, of course, that missile defenses would actually work, which to date has yet to be demonstrated. In any case, all such discussions of a possible role for strategic defenses are purely speculative in the absence of real disarmament. Otherwise, missile defenses are a destabilizing menace.

Russian officials have indicated that they might accept a limited missile defense deployment if the United States will agree to sharp offensive-force reductions. Under such a bargain, Russia and the United States would reduce nuclear arsenals to a level of 1,000 to 1,500 weapons (down from the current 6,000 strategic weapons). Russian leaders would accept modifications to the ABM treaty that would permit a limited missile-defense deployment.

Such a bargain would not eliminate all the problems associated with national missile defense, but it would take much of the sting out of the coming missile defense decision. The reductions would represent a significant step toward denuclearization and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

DAVID CORTRIGHT is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum.

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