Missile Defense: A High-Tech Maginot Line?

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President Bush's proposed missile shield has been dubbed the ultimate faith-based initiative, and it's easy to see why: Asking America to spend tens of billions of dollars on a system that has thus far shown precious little technical ability to do its job certainly requires a substantial leap of faith — not least because the threat it's designed to counter appears to rank pretty low on the scale of clear and present dangers to U.S. security.

Don't get me wrong: This is no butter-not-guns, spend-it-all-on-education whine. It's about hard-nosed assessments of U.S. security, and the spending priorities that result from those. It's certainly worth noting that while the Pentagon is more than happy to back National Missile Defense, it opposes diverting any money from the defense budget to pay for it. In other words, in Pentagon thinking, the threat of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles is not great enough to displace any of the existing spending priorities directed towards defending America. That's not to say missiles are no danger — far from it. The major danger to American lives in many plausible combat situations in the near term comes from short and intermediate range ballistic missiles. And there's no question that tactical- and theater missile defense systems are a top priority for the Pentagon. But it is not a tactical and theater missile threat that has formed the focus of National Missile Defense.

Looking back rather than looking forward

Although the President left the specifics of his proposals as vague as possible — and he certainly included reference to technologies appropriate to tactical defense against short- and intermediate-range missile attacks — the focus of National Missile Defense remains protecting U.S. borders from attacks by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). And for all of President Bush's efforts to present this as a new weapons platform for new times, it's hard to avoid seeing that missile shield as well, retro.

The President insists that it's time to move away from the "balance of terror" concept that kept Cold War enemies from firing nuclear warheads against each other for fear of massive retaliation. Instead, he proposes a missile shield in concert with a dramatic reduction in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But thereís nothing new or post-Cold War about this at all: President Ronald Reagan essentially proposed the same thing with his "Star Wars" scheme. And while President Bush's emphasis was on land- and sea-based missile defenses, the net effect would be the same — which, of course, makes sense of the dramatic cuts: The U.S. already maintains the nuclear capability to destroy any enemy country hundreds of times over, but a defensive shield that precludes an enemy from knocking out U.S. missiles means Washington can afford to dramatically reduce its own offensive capability.

Those rascally "rogue states"

But this is not post-Cold War thinking, as President Bush insists; it's Cold War thinking. A missile shield makes sense as a trump-card if youíre anticipating a large-scale exchange of missiles with a rival nuclear power. But in a post-Cold War world in which, as President Bush insists, the primary threat to the U.S. comes from "rogue states" engaged in regional conflicts with Washington or its allies, it's hard to imagine why an enemy looking to land a weapon of mass destruction on U.S. soil would choose an ICBM as his delivery system.

ICBMs are essentially a weapon of the Cold War, developed in the knowledge that nuclear devices carried by bomber planes were vulnerable to being shot down. Nuclear tipped rockets fired into space, whose warheads could be more-or-less accurately targeted upon reentry gave both Washington and Moscow the means to deliver an almost instantaneous retaliation for a nuclear strike by an enemy on a different continent. Their development and maintenance cost billions of dollars and they carried a return address, but that didnít matter in the Cold War calculation — ICBMís were there to maintain a balance of terror, in which each side knew that annihilation was the price of attacking the other with nuclear weapons. That certainty, ironically, helped keep the peace throughout the planet, with the two superpowers inclined to modulate their regional conflicts to prevent them spinning out of control and forcing a grand showdown.

Saddam in a Cessna

The Cold War is no more and regional conflicts are on the rise. America's enemies, while far less formidable than the Soviets once were, are more diverse and dispersed. And there's no doubt, too, that many of them would, if they could, target the United States with weapons of mass destruction. But assume you're Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il, and youíve managed to develop biological or nuclear weapons that you want to fire at the U.S. Why would you choose to do that via an ICBM? It's extremely expensive, hard to hide from the spying eyes of the U.S., which would probably bomb you to smithereens if it found out you were even building such a capability, and carries a return address that would see your whole country incinerated if you ever dared fire one. On the other hand, for a fraction of the cost you could deliver it in a suitcase, or put in on a Piper Cub, or sail it into a U.S. harbor on a fishing boat. Suicide bombing may not be part of U.S. military culture, but it's not hard to find jihad-kamikazes in the "rogue" states. Or even in a more sophisticated version, it would make more sense for a "rogue" state to develop a mobile Cruise Missile capability that would fly under the radar of the proposed missile shield and be more accurate than an ICBM, to boot.

There's no question that a missile shield designed to prevent an ICBM attack would leave us safer than we are now. But the real question is whether the threat of ICBM attack is that great that it warrants diverting so many U.S. resources into developing such a shield, or are their other ways of spending the same — or even a lot less — money that may make us even safer from ICBMs and other more imminent threats. Unfortunately that question is not being discussed in Washington, nor is it likely to be.