May 2, 2001

May 2, 2001 | WebMemo on Missile Defense

Missile Defense Q&A With Heritage's Defense Analyst JackSpencer

President Bush has set the table for a policy of deploying an effective missile defense system by setting a clear vision of how such a system contributes to a more secure world. Still, there are many questions among supporters and critics.

Q: Since we have no missile defense system, what is our current policy regarding protecting ourselves from missile attack?

A: As a nation, it's our policy to remain completely vulnerable to ballistic missiles.

Maybe this made sense during the Cold War. But the Cold War is over now and there are all of these other missile threats emerging, and they've all emerged with the U.S. adhering to the ABM Treaty.

Q: Will a missile defense system be 100 percent effective?

A: Well, if we hold everything to those standards, we would never have anything. If I lived in one of the cities that is protected, I would be quite happy that we had a system in place.

So, 100 percent reliability is not necessary. What is required is that we deploy something, and from that point on, we continue to make it better and better all the time. And then, we can hopefully deter anyone from ever attacking the United States or its allies to begin with.

Q: So, you are talking about building on the technology as we go along?

A: Sure. If we wait until something is 100 percent workable, that no missile can get through no matter what, we will never deploy anything, and that will give the incentive for other nations to continue to proliferate ballistic missiles.

The problem with the whole debate is that people have it backwards. People are assuming that building a missile defense will cause proliferation, when the facts are quite the opposite. In the absence of missile defense, we have seen proliferation take place. We've seen the United States' and Russian arsenals skyrocket since 1972, when we signed the ABM treaty. And since the end of the Cold War in 1991, we have seen the proliferation throughout the third world.

So, this is in the absence of missile defense, while under the constraints of the ABM treaty.

Q: Will this cause an arms race with Russia? China?

A: Russia's not an enemy anymore. We don't really have to worry about the Russian nuclear arsenal in the same way that we did during the Cold War. So, they have no incentive to invest their resources in building more missiles to strike the United States.

The accidental launch scenario is very real. But the question is, will this cause an arms race with Russia? And it won't.

The Chinese have been building ballistic missiles for a number of years now, long-range ones. They have two very high-tech missiles in the works. The DF-31 which will be deployed very soon. So, they're building their missile arsenals independent of any missile defense system and they have been since before the missile defense came back onto the radar screen.

So, I think those are important issues that need to be addressed when we talk about whether or not this is going to cause an arms race, because it simply will not. It will stop the ongoing arms race that's taking place right now.

Q: How long would it take to get this system?

A: We are closer today than what we were yesterday. Because President Bush made the political commitment to defend the United States, our friends and allies overseas and that's the first step to deploying a real effective missile defense. He finally put this Cold War treaty - the ABM Treaty, which has defined the Cold War adversarial relationship for 30 years - behind us.

The Cold War is over, the adversarial relationship is over. And now we can focus on the business of defending the United States and its friends and allies around the world. Politics has far too long stood in the way of defending America. President Bush's political commitment that he made Tuesday was the first step. So, we're closer today than we were yesterday. It was a big step.

Q: Who do we feel is the biggest threat of launching a nuclear attack?

A: It's the existence of these missiles, that's the threat. These countries would not be investing their scarce resources and developing an 11,000-kilometer range missile, for example, if they didn't plan to use it, either to blackmail the United States or to actually launch a missile against the United States.

That's exactly what poor countries like North Korea are doing. Why in the world would North Korea, who can't feed its own people, invest in this technology? I will tell you why, because the United States right now is completely vulnerable to even one ballistic missile. And it gives a country like North Korea the international standing to throw its weight around. And we can't have an irresponsible nation like that with that capability.

Q: Why would North Korea, or any other country, even Iraq for that matter, launch a nuclear missile at the United States, knowing that we could turn around and obliterate them?

A: Would we, though? Would we necessarily turn around and obliterate millions and millions of innocent North Koreans or innocent Iraqis because of the irrational actions of one crazy dictator, tyrant? I don't know that we would, and I think that could be in the calculations of these sorts of leaders.

Let's say, for example, a war were to break out in the Middle East or on the peninsula or anywhere in the world, and that the United States, or whatever power, was about to obtain victory, and the leader who was about to lose and his regime was about to fall, never used his missile, but at the very the last moment, he thought, hey, I'm about -- my regime is going to fall anyway, why not launch this missile against the United States and make them pay for them taking away my country?

So, there are a number of scenarios where a missile could very well be launched. And again, I want to come back to - these countries would not be investing their resources and to developing this technology if they didn't have some reason to use it.

Q: Will the missile defense system President Bush has proposed stop terrorist attacks within our borders?

A: It's unfair to make the comparison between a terrorist attack and a ballistic missile attack. They are totally different sorts of attacks. A missile defense shield is not meant to protect against a terrorist attack.

We spend right now about $12 billion a year to protect ourselves from terrorism. The bottom line is that we live a free society, and a motivated terrorist could do harm. But a missile attack is something completely different. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

A missile defense was never meant and should not be meant to defend against a terrorist attack. We must devote adequate resources to meeting both of these threats.

Q: Does this kind of a big investment make sense? What about concentrating more resources on terrorists, and improving intelligence operations, for example?

A: I agree that there are other areas of concern, however we are still living in the United States - and our troops and friends abroad are vulnerable to ballistic missiles. Look, $10 billion a year, probably what we need to spend, does seem like a lot of money. But it's less than 3 percent of our overall defense budget. It's only a drop in the defense bucket and it's one that can provide a much-needed capability. Besides, how can you put a price on an American city?

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity

Related Issues: Missile Defense