Focus on missile defense leaves us vulnerable to more urgent threats

August 27, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- On Sept. 10, 2001, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith arrived in Moscow to discuss the administration's efforts to protect Americans from being slaughtered by enemies striking out of a clear blue sky. President Bush, you see, saw the danger and was taking action. His chief defense initiative in his first eight months in office was to build a national missile defense to knock down any ballistic missiles launched against us.

The next day, the American people discovered that North Korean missiles were not the chief peril facing the nation. Nor were they even the most immediate nuclear threat. It turns out that al-Qaida has been in the market for nuclear devices that could be smuggled into the United States. For these new terrorist dangers, national missile defense was pathetically irrelevant.

Yet the president, having made up his mind early on, was not about to let the 9/11 attacks change his mind.

Recently, he said critics "are living in the past. We're living in the future." Declared the president, "We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world, `You fire, we're going to shoot it down.'"

Faced with a system that could shoot down a missile, Mr. Bush would have us believe, tyrants would slink away and leave us in peace. In fact, an American missile defense -- even if it worked, which is by no means certain -- would be a modest obstacle for any enemy with weapons of mass destruction.

Any nation that can build nuclear warheads and ICBMs can build enough of them to overwhelm our anti-missile system. It could also equip them with cheap, simple equipment to foil our interceptors. In this scenario, most defense experts agree, the advantage lies with the attacker, not the defender.

And while the defender must stop 100 percent of all incoming warheads to be successful, an attacker can inflict catastrophic damage on us with a penetration rate of 10 percent, 5 percent or even 1 percent.

But the enemy doesn't need ICBMs. A short-range rocket fired from an innocent-looking boat just off our coast could easily fly under the planned system. Or the boat could steam into New York Harbor, where an atomic bomb could be detonated. Or terrorists could sneak a nuclear device into Mexico and truck it across the border.

What we learned on 9/11 is that al-Qaida doesn't hit our strong points but our weak ones, of which there are still many. Given that, building a national missile defense is like buying flood insurance for a wooden house located in an arid wildfire region.

This program is especially puzzling when you consider that more plausible threats are getting shortchanged. Consider the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which provides funds for securing and destroying nuclear weapons and bomb fuel in the former Soviet Union. The Bush administration has furnished fewer dollars for this effort than the Clinton administration proposed back in the peaceful days before 9/11.

According to a recent report by the Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom, "The amount of nuclear material secured in the two years immediately following the 9/11 attacks was actually less than the amount secured in the two years immediately before the attacks."

Though critics say the real obstacle is not money but lack of cooperation from Moscow, Mr. Bush has yet to make it his paramount priority with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

The second urgent danger is a terrorist shooting down a commercial airliner. There are as many as 700,000 small, inexpensive, shoulder-fired missiles in circulation in the world -- such as the Stinger missiles the United States shipped to Afghan rebels in the 1980s. In 2002, terrorists believed to be connected with al-Qaida fired one unsuccessfully at an Israeli airliner in Kenya.

Yet the administration acts as though the threat won't materialize until the 22nd century. Anti-missile devices are already available and in use on Israeli airliners, as well as Air Force One, but nothing has been done to protect America's commercial fleet. Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat whose bill would provide $10 billion to equip all 6,800 commercial airliners, has not been able to get the president's support.

It's a lot of money -- until you compare it with the human and economic harm that would result from a single plane being shot down. And, notes John Pike, director of defense research outfit, "One year of the missile defense budget would protect all our airliners from Stingers."

Mr. Bush says his missile defense plan means he's living in the future. But it's no help against the gravest dangers, which are right here in the present.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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