November 7, 2001

November 7, 2001 | Commentary on Missile Defense

Missile Defense: No Time for Easy Assumptions

David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has compared ballistic missile defense to the Maginot Line, the wall built after World War I to protect France from German invasion: Brilliantly constructed. Thorough to a fault. But utterly useless against the real threats at hand.

We've had our terrorist attacks, Halberstam says, and they didn't come via ballistic missile. So, he concludes, there's no reason to construct an American Maginot Line -- i.e., no need to defend against ballistic missiles.

There are several flaws with this line of thinking.

For one, it assumes terrorists have a one-page playbook and that all future attacks will look like those of Sept. 11. The Anthrax crisis alone puts the lie to that.

It assumes we don't have to worry about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Never mind that he's used chemical weapons against his own people, attempted to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush, and brazenly expelled U.N. inspectors in an apparent effort to speed the development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

It also assumes Saddam never will use the missile program he's been developing, at tremendous cost and despite international sanctions forbidding this and other aggressive activity.

That's not all. Can Halberstam guarantee that America will continue to have cordial relations with Russia and China, both of which possess more than enough firepower to destroy us? Can he assure us that Iran, which has a robust missile program, never will strike at the country its leaders routinely refer to as the Great Satan?

Is there no danger that North Korea could use the long-range missile it is developing (one with a possible range of 6,000 miles) against the United States? Or that this perennially poor country will ever stoop to making quick cash by selling missiles to terrorists? Or that Libya, Syria and other state sponsors of terrorism will ever upgrade their own missile stocks to threaten America's allies?

Even for a man such as Halberstam, who must be quite capable of understanding and appreciating probabilities, this makes for a lot of assuming. And if we've learned nothing else since Sept. 11, it's that we need to become far more humble regarding what we assume about others -- and far more imaginative in what we do to protect ourselves.

For instance, we've long believed one thing would deter ballistic missile strikes against the United States -- that anyone who attacks us doesn't want to die. After all, we would retaliate vigorously.

This assumption, of course, didn't hold true on Sept. 11. The perpetrators willingly went down with the planes, so they obviously didn't fear death.

Further, we assume virtually all of those who hate us can't reach us with ballistic weapons. But who can say what range a missile belonging to a terrorist-supporting state will have in five or 10 years? And what if a well-endowed terrorist network figured out a way to launch a missile from a barge at sea just a few hundred miles off our shores? This would be no less impossible to achieve than coordinating an attack by four hijacked airliners.

If a sea-based attack occurred, how would we react? Even if we found the barge with its crew still alive, what do we do to them that would deter others with similar aims? And even if we knew the exact location of a launch from a rogue state, killing millions of innocent people in that state wouldn't bring back one dead American.

Before Sept. 11, no one had hijacked an American plane for more than 10 years. If we can't put it past terrorists to pull off those attacks, how can we reasonably ignore the possibility that they could acquire ballistic missiles with chemical, biological or even nuclear warheads?

And if that's the case, what, really, is the argument against constructing missile defense as soon as possible? We've proven it can work. Yes, we would have to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But if our national security demands such a step, we must take it.

We can't assume weapons of mass destruction -- principally missiles -- won't come our way in the near future. In fact, we probably should assume they will. We can't assume those who wish us harm aren't even now busily trying to acquire and refine such missiles. We can't underestimate their commitment, their financial wherewithal or their imagination.

Unlike Mr. Halberstam, whose contentions about missile defense rest on a tall stack of questionable guesses, we no longer can afford easy assumptions at all.

Kim Holmes is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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