The heart of Ronald Reagan's 1983 Star Wars program lives on, kept beating by a mix of election-year politicking, behind-the-scenes defense-industry puppeteering, and a fiercely committed group of conservative think tanks and antimissile-system advocates. It has propelled the National Missile Defense (NMD) system toward this Friday's scheduled test over the Pacific and is likely to move its development forward no matter the result. Pentagon officials liken the congressional push to deploy such a system to the early 1980s' fervent but vain effort to implement a "nuclear freeze" on the U.S. military. But they say missile-defense advocates appear to have a better chance of winning this time.
Not surprisingly, defense contractors too have a major interest in an NMD system, especially since its ultimate cost is estimated at more than $30 billion. The four largest weapons contractors--Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and TRW--together received more than $2.2 billion in missile-defense research-and-development money over a recent 21-month span, according to a report issued by the World Policy Institute. In 1997 and '98, the latest years for which figures are available, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and TRW spent $35 million on lobbying. Boeing is even readying a television campaign touting the need for missile defense.
But defense contractors don't really have to worry about politicians' turning off the funding spigot. They maintain that lawmakers' support for deployment remains solid and won't be weakened by test failures. Moreover, the issue is thriving in the presidential campaign. In May, George W. Bush unveiled his plan for combining unilateral arms cuts with a national missile system far more extensive--and expensive --than the one the Clinton Administration is considering. While Clinton's plan calls for the initial deployment of some 100 land-based interceptors at one site, Bush's yet-to-be-detailed plan envisions many more interceptors at numerous sites on land and at sea. Says Bush: "Our nation needs a new approach to nuclear security that matches a new era."
This particular new approach will certainly mean a new era in strategic thinking. The construction of NMD would be a violation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. If Clinton pushes forward with the as yet unproven NMD, not only will security relations with Moscow be upended but a new era of strategic instability with China and other nations may also emerge.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been traveling around Europe lobbying hard to undermine support for the U.S. antimissile shield--and making dire predictions of a "new arms race." America's European allies are concerned too. Senior European diplomats argue that if the U.S. creates a national missile defense, European reaction will be, "What are we going to do? How are we going to defend ourselves?" It will be badly received in Europe. And though China has only around 20 ICBMs, Beijing has threatened to build more if the U.S. goes ahead with NMD. Last week 45 U.S. experts on China wrote Clinton urging him to put off NMD, arguing that it would be viewed in China as "a sign of increased hostility." Says Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser: "We have operated 40 years on deterrence. If we're going to abandon it, we need to determine what it will be abandoned for."
Proponents of NMD say it is justified because of a new threat, one posed by so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iran that are acquiring increasingly sophisticated missile technology capable of delivering not only nuclear warheads but also biological and chemical weapons. In short, Moscow is no longer the only danger. "Today the world is no longer bipolar," says Henry Kissinger. "Today the threats have moved into different areas. Deliberate vulnerability, when the technology is available to avoid it, cannot be a strategic objective, cannot be a political objective, and cannot be a moral objective of any American President." In 1995 Clinton vetoed legislation that would have required the deployment of a missile shield by 2003, saying there was no threat justifying such a deployment. But in 1998, North Korea test-fired the Taepo Dong-1, a long-range, three-stage missile that indicated Pyongyang was well on its way to building a missile capable of reaching U.S. soil. And so, last year, Clinton signed the National Missile Defense Act into law. It calls for the construction of an antimissile system "as soon as technologically possible."