March 23, 1998

March 23, 1998 | Commentary on Missile Defense

Assured Vulnerability

During the early years of the Cold War, American youngsters were periodically herded into the hallways and cafeterias of their elementary schools and shown how to protect themselves against atomic bombs by kneeling on the floor, folding their hands over their heads, and tucking their torsos between their legs.

Those Cold War kids are now running the country. And the "duck and cover" exercises won't work any better today than they would have in the 1950s.

Rogue nations are getting their hands on the technical know-how and hardware needed to launch long-range missiles tipped with nuclear or bio/chemical warheads. It's a virtual certainty that before too long the United States will face a Saddam-like dictator who can send such a weapon hurtling toward American soil in less time than it takes to watch the evening news.

The Clinton administration refuses to take seriously the idea of deploying a national missile defense, as first proposed by President Reagan 15 years ago this month. Since the likelihood of a massive nuclear strike from Russia is practically nil, U.S. leaders have become complacent. Somehow, the fact that today's threat is not as overwhelming, and may come from an as-yet-unknown foe, makes them sleep easier. What should cause them to snap to attention is that: a) our future foes will be far less cautious than the Soviets were during the Cold War; and b) its impossible to predict exactly when these enemies will acquire the capacity to ravage American territory with long-range missiles.

The Soviet commissars, constrained by the chess-game of superpower politics, were models of restraint compared to the missile-armed leaders we will probably face in the future. The fact that we (or our allies) are likely to be attacked by a limited number of missiles rather than hundreds or thousands means it will be easier to knock them down. For these reasons, a technologically updated version of the multi-layer defensive shield envisioned by Reagan makes even more sense today than it did in 1983.

In spite of all this, the very idea of national missile defense still must overcome the old "Star Wars" prejudice that there's something silly and even dangerous about defending ourselves against the most destructive weapons ever invented. This mindset remains alive and well, even though technological advances during the past fifteen years have eliminated most of the feasibility and cost objections voiced by skeptics. "Star Wars" research has already provided the U.S. Navy an affordable system to defend itself from ballistic missiles; most experts agree a similar system could be expanded to encompass the entire nation relatively easily.

Yet, the Clinton administration clings tenaciously to a Cold War fossil, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which prohibits the building of national defenses, even though this treaty was signed when missile defense technology was still very immature. In those days, both the United States and the Soviet Union figured that since they couldn't mount effective national defenses, they might as well obtain a pledge from the other side that none would be built. That was about as much security as was available.

Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow admitted that it violated the ABM agreement with its phased-array radar site at Krasnoyarsk. Soviet military writings also indicate Moscow never accepted the American version of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), or deterrence based on the threat of massive retaliation. They considered it MAD, which of course it was.

Perversely, the U.S. arms control establishment has come to embrace MAD -- once considered a necessary evil -- as a virtue, even though adhering to this outdated concept is keeping America defenseless in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world. President Clinton defends the treaty as the "cornerstone of strategic stability." Scrapping the ABM treaty is considered sacrilegious, "Star Wars" is still ridiculed as if it were science fiction, and proposals to erect a national missile defense are met with rolling eyes.

Meanwhile, nations such as North Korea and Iran are working overtime to exploit America's vulnerability to missile attack. Unable to match America's conventional military might, they are, with perfect logic, seeking to exploit our vulnerability to missiles. The Clinton administration's refusal to deploy defenses is providing them with a powerful incentive to build or buy weapons of mass destruction.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the interconnected nature of today's global economy are making their task easier. These developments have made it virtually impossible to stop the proliferation of missile technology. Thanks to the Internet, an underpaid Russian scientist who wants to pad his pocketbook can sell his missile know-how to foreign states or terrorist groups without even leaving his desktop computer. Even the Clinton administration has declared the proliferation problem a "national emergency."

As a November 1997 Pentagon proliferation study starkly notes, at least 20 countries already are developing ballistic missiles, including some of the world's least predictable and most unsavory regimes. North Korea flight-tested a 1,000 kilometer range ballistic missile, the No-Dong, nearly five years ago, in May 1993. North Korean scientists are also busy developing ever longer-range missiles, including the Taepo-Dong 2, which could hit Hawaii or Alaska. Skeptics dismiss this threat, saying that North Korean missiles won't be very accurate. This is small comfort, since the capacity to destroy an entire city doesn't exactly require pinpoint accuracy.

Last year CIA Director George Tenet estimated it would take Iran a decade to develop a medium-range missile capable of striking Israel. Since then, Russian transfers of missile technology to Iran have forced the CIA to revise its estimate. In January, Tenet told the Senate that Iran "could have a medium-range missile much sooner than I assessed last year." In other words, the CIA doesn't have a clear idea how soon America and its allies will by threatened by rogue nations possessing weapons of mass destruction.

And what about Russia and China, which already possess missiles capable of destroying America cities? What assurance do we have of their future friendship? Though its conventional forces remain strapped for cash, Moscow continues to enhance its land-based nuclear-missile fleet, and, according to a January 1998 article in Aviation Week & Space Technology, has accelerated its SS-X-27 program, its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile.

In his forthcoming book, "War Scare," Dr. Peter Pry, a former military analyst for the CIA, explains in chilling detail how a research rocket launched from Norway in January 1995 spooked Russian military authorities into thinking a U.S. nuclear submarine had launched a surprise missile attack. Lacking advance warning of the Norwegian missile launch, Russian military authorities passed the alarm to President Boris Yeltsin, who quickly reviewed Russian retaliatory plans while his advisors struggled to determine the rocket's origin. What if their assessment had been wrong?

Before World War II, Winston Churchill wrote that "[T]he exertions which a nation is prepared to make to protect its individual representatives or citizens from outrage is one of the truest measures of its greatness as an organized state." Today the biggest "outrage" is that the White House has chosen, as a matter of national policy, to keep its citizens defenseless against missile attack in a world where such an attack is becoming more likely every year.

Our leaders should bear firmly in mind who will be held responsible if the attack ever comes, and we are still undefended.

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