'Missile Defense Has Become an Article of Faith'

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MARK J. TERRILL/AP

A target missile is launched as part of a missile-defense system test

TIME.com: President Bush is pushing ahead with his plan to build a missile defense shield. How far along are we, both from an engineering and from a diplomatic point of view, in the process?

Mark Thompson: The President is saying he plans to send his envoys to Europe and they’re getting serious about moving ahead quickly, but we already knew that. They’ve been building up a head of steam for three months, but there's no idea yet of where exactly they’re going to go with it. It's not really possible for our allies or our competitors to critique the system, because there is no system yet. It’s a bit like offering to sell Taiwan diesel-powered subs, which we can't provide because we no longer make them. We're going to sell Europe a missile shield that we don't yet have, and can’t yet say what it will look like.

Few of Washington's allies and none of its strategic competitors, current and former, are happy with the idea of a missile shield. How will each of them react to the Bush administration pushing ahead? Let’s start with China.

Of course the Chinese are going to object to anything that makes its 20 nuclear missiles obsolete, which even the most limited version of this system will do — only if it works, of course. So the first question is, does it work? But the Chinese aren’t likely to wait to find out, so the second question is what kind of agreement would be necessary to accommodate their concerns. If we go ahead, essentially we're going to be saying it's preferable for China to build more nuclear missiles to maintain their nuclear deterrent. We have no nuclear arms control agreement with them currently, but Washington doesn't treat China as a rogue state either. So there'll be some sort of tacit acknowledgement of their right to a nuclear deterrent. We may not like that, but there'll still be an effort to achieve some sort of understanding over it.

How about the Russians — they have a lot more missiles and warheads, the shield doesn't eliminate their deterrent in the same way, and yet they're strongly opposed…

I think the Russians will ultimately accommodate us, possibly with some changes in existing agreements. It could be a good opportunity for both sides to scale back their nuclear arsenals — that's President Bush's carrot for the Russians.

What about the NATO allies in Western Europe?

Europe will basically go along with us, because they have no choice. It's a fait accompli thing. We've told them we're going to negotiate, but also that we're going ahead and building it. So the question of whether or not we do it is not really open to negotiation. But fundamentally, Europe knows its security is tied to Washington. They'll grumble, but will ultimately go along with missile defense.

How about the "rogue states" against which this is ostensibly designed to defend?

Well even if we don't build it, they’re more likely to put a weapon of mass destruction in a Cessna or on a fishing boat or in a Ryder truck. The Pentagon knows that, but this has ceased to be a debate on the merits of devoting so much of our resources to a missile threat — it has become an article of faith. America has always been undefended against all sorts of threats. We determine our spending based on how imminent or plausible those threats are. We've always accepted some degree of risk because we’ve devoted our resources to other defense priorities.

Is the military worried that missile defense could draw resources away from projects they consider more important?

Yes, they're afraid of that. The Joint Chiefs want it funded separately rather than out of the defense budget. They've said the terrorist threat is far greater from a suitcase bomb than from someone launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). It's a lot easier, for example, to sail a boat to 200 miles off America's shores and then launch a nuclear tipped cruise missile flying below the radar, using a GPS (global positioning system) for guidance — and the missile defense scheme would not cover that threat. Why would anyone go to all the trouble and expense of building an ICBM when such a scenario would be cheaper, more accurate, and less traceable?