Anti-Missile Defenses: Look Before Leaping

Currently proposed US space- and ground-based system fails to recognize that the threat may be decreasing

By , Joel Wit is a Council on Foreign Relations fellow and a resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

SPURRED on by the Gulf war, the Bush administration is asking Congress to fund the "Global Protection Against Accidental Launch System." GPALS is an extensive system of space and ground-based interceptors to defend the United States, its allies, and its troops abroad from third-world missile attacks and unauthorized or accidental launches from the Soviet Union. The request, which has already triggered congressional skirmishes, sets the stage for a new debate on strategic defense centering on a weapon system which suffers from fundamental flaws.

Congressional critics will argue that GPALS space-based interceptors will be unable to react quickly enough to destroy short-range missiles aimed at our allies or troops stationed abroad. Also, a conservative estimate of the cost of GPALS, $40 billion, would make it more expensive than any strategic weapon system except the B-2 bomber. Finally, many legislators will oppose GPALS since it will require dumping the 1972 US-Soviet treaty limiting anti-ballistic missile defenses.

Even more important, the threat GPALS is supposed to address may not be growing. The Gulf war demonstrated that countries like Iraq pose a missile threat. However, most third-world missiles are short-ranged, use outdated technology, and were bought abroad, not built at home. Missile suppliers will be scarce in the future, particularly if China continues to exercise the restraint it began after its transfer of missiles to Saudi Arabia in 1988. Advanced third-world attempts to "home-grow" these weapons, f or example in Argentina and Brazil, are faltering.

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In short, while the danger of theater missile attack will continue, it probably will not increase. A threat to the continental US may never materialize.

Domestic instability in the Soviet Union raises the possibility that disaffected groups could seize missiles. But the Soviets have taken measures, more extensive than our own, to insure against this possibility. Gen. Colin Powell has stated that because of his "knowledge of how the Soviets manage their nuclear systems," he is "fairly comfortable that those weapons will not get into improper hands" and would be "unusable" if they did.

GPALS also has important, unaddressed political implications. Soviet defenses, along the lines of GPALS, would threaten the small British and French nuclear forces, eroding the security of our allies. But little or no thought has been given to this extremely sensitive issue

The space-based component of GPALS might allow the US to intervene in regional conflicts even if US forces are not involved. For example, GPALS could thwart missile attacks in an Indo-Pakistani war. This new leverage over other states would be seen by them as implying an extremely active foreign policy which the US may not be ready to pursue.

Moreover, GPALS has been formulated in isolation from an inevitable US reevaluation of how to guarantee nuclear deterrence. This reevaluation will be triggered by reductions in strategic offensive arms mandated by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). If it is decided that an ABM system is needed to defend the US, that will open the door to a similar Soviet system. Both sides' defenses should be large enough to deal with limited missile threats, but small enough not to threaten US and Soviet offe nsive forces designed to insure nuclear deterrence.

GPALS fails on both counts. It is more than is needed to deal with limited attacks and would threaten the deterrence value of superpower forces reduced in size by strategic arms agreements.

Finally, if there is a long-term problem of missile attack, nonmilitary options for dealing with it are better. The Gulf war showed the importance of military preparedness but also of successful diplomacy.

The US has not been doing enough diplomatically to control the missile threat. For example, we have concentrated our efforts on building a cartel of suppliers, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), to limit the spread of missiles. Possible initiatives to involve potential proliferators in a nonproliferation regime, whether through arms control agreements, military aid, or technology cooperation, have been ignored. Also, if the US is concerned about Soviet instability, the superpowers should disc uss improving the security of missile forces.

The US should construct missile defenses which are firmly grounded in political, economic, technological, and military logic. For example, improving the Patriot missile, used to shoot down Scuds in the Gulf, and funding a more capable anti-ballistic missile to deal with similar threats would be prudent. Building a limited missile defense of the US, however unnecessary, may be technologically possible, politically feasible, militarily sound, and affordable. But a weapons initiative pursued in isolation o f all these considerations is a prescription for failure.

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