February 28, 2003

February 28, 2003 | WebMemo on

No Defense for Criticism on Missile Defense Testing

Today, the military is unable to shoot down even a single ballistic missile that is launched against U.S. territory.  The Department of Defense is addressing this by planning to give a developmental missile defense system an operational capability to close this glaring vulnerability as soon as possible.


Senator Dianne Feinstein of California is very upset.  In a February 21 letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the Senator states that the system should go through a battery of operational tests before the military may be allowed to use it.


This criticism might be justified except for the fact that Sen. Feinstein's letter fails to provide an alternative approach for defending the American people against missile attacks for the foreseeable future. 


The irony in Sen. Feinstein's position is that Californians are among the U.S. citizens most at risk today from a rogue state missile attack.  CIA Director George Tenet confirmed, in congressional testimony on February 12, that North Korea has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western U.S.  The irony is made even more palpable by the fact that this North Korean missile has not been tested.  Apparently, Sen. Feinstein thinks it is not a problem that North Korea has given a ballistic missile capable of hitting her constituents an operational capability without testing it, but objects to the U.S. military fielding a system under similar circumstances that may give the people of California a chance at being defended against this threat.


California's senior senator does not stop there, adding in her letter to Secretary Rumsfeld that, "Indeed, given the potential cost of a failure of missile defense, I believe that, if anything, it should be required to meet more stringent test standards than normally required."


Conspicuous by its absence in the letter is a detailed explanation of those costs.  The fact is that the Department of Defense is seeking to give the developmental system an operational capability.  It is not proposing to circumvent either developmental or operational tests.  The costs in terms of questions about the ultimate effectiveness and reliability of a fully deployed missile defense system by giving the military access to the system in the interim are nonexistent.  All the tests that Sen. Feinstein has requested will be conducted.


Under the circumstances, it becomes impossible to avoid the question of whether the criticisms leveled at the missile defense system are motivated by policy considerations and not on the basis of concern about whether the military will obtain an effective and reliable system.  After all, missile defense critics have argued for decades in favor of the previous policy that made vulnerability to missile attack a virtue.  This policy was overturned by President Bush last year and led to his December 17, 2002 decision to give the developmental system an operational capability.


Certainly, the policy of purposeful vulnerability to missile attack is consistent with Sen. Feinstein's apparent willingness to leave her constituents exposed to the North Korean threat.  If this is the case, Sen. Feinstein should not hide her policy preferences behind a technical argument about the testing process.  If she believes that exposing Californians to missile attacks is a good thing for strategic stability and national security she should tell them.  And she should not be surprised if her constituents disagree.

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy