Reviving Star Wars

President Bush, with his selection for defense secretary, places national missile defense high on U.S. agenda

January 21, 2001|By William D. Hartung and Michelle Ciarrocca

THROUGHOUT the presidential campaign, George W. Bush made it clear that one of the first priorities of his administration would be to develop and deploy a multi-faceted missile defense system as soon as possible. Although his proposed plan appears to be similar in size and scope to Ronald Reagan's original Star Wars vision, Bush has yet to reveal the specifics of what his pet project will entail except that it should be able to "protect all 50 states and our friends and allies and deployed forces overseas."

When Bush named Donald H. Rumsfeld as his Defense Secretary-designate, he signaled his intention to assign this well-seasoned Pentagon veteran the task of doing a "selling job" on missile defense to Congress and U.S. allies. Given the serious technical, cost, and arms-control problems plaguing the proposed National Missile Defense (NMD) system, that will be no small task.

Technically speaking, there's nothing to sell just yet. As President Clinton stated in September in his decision to defer deployment of the NMD system to the next administration, "I simply cannot conclude with the information I have today that we have enough confidence in the technology, and the operational effectiveness of the entire NMD system, to move forward to deployment."

The system has failed two of its three intercept tests. Regardless of whether it succeeds in its next intercept test scheduled for sometime this spring, serious questions remain about the system's ability to defend against real-world threats where an attack by a rogue state would be accompanied by countermeasures and decoys.

The cost estimates for the limited NMD system currently being tested range from the modest $60 billion figure from the Congressional Budget Office up to $120 billion. Logically, a missile defense "triad" consisting of sea-, space- and ground-based interceptors - the system Bush and his Republican counterparts are advocating - could cost $240 billion or more.

Furthermore, even if the NMD system can be made to "work" on the military/technical level without breaking the budget, a hasty decision to deploy NMD poses grave risks to U.S. and global stability.

A deployment decision could derail Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's offer to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,000 strategic warheads each and would almost certainly provoke new nuclear weapons production by Russia and China. As a National Intelligence Estimate suggested last summer, deployment of an NMD system would set off "an unsettling series of political and military ripple effects ... that would include a sharp build-up of strategic and medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the further spread of military technology in the Middle East."

Against this backdrop it is clear that Rumsfeld has his work cut out for him. But as Charles Aldinger of Reuters appropriately noted, "Rumsfeld is well placed to deal with the thorny question of deploying a missile defense." His close involvement with conservative think tanks and missile defense contractors puts him in the middle of the lobby that has promoted missile defense for decades.

Despite Rumsfeld's reputation as a moderate Republican with pragmatic views on security issues, his long-standing ties with pro-Star Wars think tanks such as Empower America and the Center for Security Policy cast serious doubts on these characterizations. When it comes to vital national security issues such as missile defense and nuclear arms control, Donald Rumsfeld is an ideologue in moderate's clothing.

Rumsfeld's most praised work of late has been his key role in leading the congressionally mandated panel charged with assessing the ballistic missile threat facing the United States. The unclassified summary of the report, released in the summer of 1998, asserted that - within five years of deciding to do so - a rogue state such as North Korea or Iran could acquire a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. Previous CIA estimates had placed the timetable at 10 or 15 years. The report painted the ultimate worst-case scenario, ignoring all of the real-world obstacles Third World countries face in trying to obtain a long-range ballistic missile capability and playing up any factors (however remote) that might increase their chances of getting usable ballistic missiles in a shorter time frame.

Though the report did not explicitly advocate missile defense, Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican and anti-arms control ideologue whose motto is "peace through strength, not peace through paper" - asserts that "The Rumsfeld Report was the main reason the debate was gradually turned around and the administration turned around."

In essence, the Rumsfeld panel gave Star Wars boosters in Congress the quasi-official endorsement they needed to push the program forward.

Gauging the threat

The missile threat facing the United States has been exaggerated, to say the least.

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