Defense that makes sense

October 28, 2004|By Loren B. Thompson

THE LANDSCAPE of national security has been radically transformed since George W. Bush promised in a campaign speech five years ago to deploy anti-ballistic missiles to guard the homeland and troops overseas "at the earliest possible date."

He has remained true to his pledge about missile defense. Funding for defenses against ballistic missiles has doubled, from about $4 billion per year under President Bill Clinton to $8 billion under Mr. Bush, and the amount is headed higher.

In 2002, the White House directed that missile defenses must be operational by the end of 2004, and it looks as if that deadline will be met. In fact, the Army system already is operational because it is on alert sporadically for test purposes.

Does it matter? The 9/11 attacks seemed to confirm the prediction of experts that enemies would strike America where it was weakest, not where it was well-prepared. Critics of missile defense had long complained that any defensive network would be incapable of coping with such unconventional aggression.

Beyond that, America's military is struggling to contain a spreading insurgency in Iraq, making much of the nation's investment in high-tech weapons seem irrelevant to immediate military needs. As the most complex and costly part of the Pentagon's technology agenda, it isn't surprising that some would ask what missile defense has to do with meeting the security challenges of a new era.

But the case for missile defense is more compelling today than it was 21 years ago, when Ronald Reagan proposed an ambitious defensive scheme that opponents dubbed "star wars." Here's why.

Nuclear weapons remain the greatest danger to America's security. The carnage caused by even one nuclear warhead would dwarf the trauma of 9/11. Millions could be harmed, not only by prompt effects such as blast, heat and radiation but also by delayed effects such as fallout and economic dislocation.

During the Cold War, the nuclear threat consisted mainly of Soviet weapons, and the Soviet arsenal was so huge that effective defense seemed impossible. So the United States depended on a strategy of nuclear deterrence -- assured retaliation -- and hoped the Soviet Union would see the folly of launching an attack.

Things have changed. Russia's arsenal is shrinking fast, but a number of other potentially hostile countries are acquiring nuclear weapons. China is modernizing its minimal nuclear force. Pakistan has crossed the nuclear threshold. Iran and North Korea are known to be pursuing nuclear capabilities.

Deterrence -- the threat of retaliation -- was a poor alternative to defense even when there was only one country to worry about. But when there are at least a half-dozen potentially hostile nuclear powers, deterrence by itself looks like a gamble against history. Some of the emerging nuclear powers may be less rational or more accident-prone than were the Soviets.

The good news is that instead of possessing thousands of warheads, as the Soviets did, newer nuclear powers have only a handful. So while their behavior may be less predictable, the feasibility of defending against their aggression is greatly increased. Defensive technologies are also far more sophisticated today.

There are a variety of ways attackers could launch nuclear weapons against the United States, from bombers to cruise missiles to container ships. But today, as in the past, all of the likely aggressors favor ballistic missiles. The main reason is that there are no defenses against such weapons, which over intercontinental ranges move at several miles per second.

So nuclear threats have become smaller and more diverse, but they remain concentrated in the one type of weapon for which we have no defense. By leveraging new defensive technologies not available during the Cold War, policy-makers can nullify the relatively modest ballistic missile force likely to be fielded by an Iran or North Korea and discourage other countries from pursuing such capabilities.

The kind of defensive network the Bush administration is building could not stop a large Russian or Chinese attack. But it could intercept an accidental launch of a few missiles. Given the way the world has changed, that is the most likely form any Chinese or Russian aggression would take.

Iraq and 9/11 prove that missile defense is no panacea for America's security needs. But the administration is only devoting about two days' worth of federal spending per year to building defenses against the greatest military threat the nation faces. As long as the system works and it doesn't undercut funding for other facets of national defense, it's a sensible policy -- the only sensible policy in such uncertain times.

Loren B. Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and teaches security policy at Georgetown University.

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