Caution on Missile Defense

When North korea lobbed an experimental ballistic missile over Japan last August, it renewed debate in the US over whether to deploy a ballistic-missile defense system. Controversy had raged for several years. Congressional Republicans want to commit to deployment; the administration wants to defer a decision until June 2000.

In previous years, the administration has relied on intelligence experts who estimated it would be at least a decade before states such as North Korea or Iran could develop missiles capable of reaching the United States. Clearly those estimates need revision.

Missile-defense advocates say that with the increased possibility a rogue state will obtain ballistic missiles and threaten to fire them at, say, a Midwestern city, a defense system must be deployed as soon as possible.

The first obstacle is that such a system doesn't exist yet, although it is under development. A series of failures in tests of smaller-scale "theater" missile defense show the distance to be traveled. But there's another hurdle: the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. That treaty allows the US to deploy a missile-defense system at one site in North Dakota. It's not yet possible to protect all 50 states from there, and a system that did so would violate the current treaty.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle, running for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, jumped into the fray in a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Mr. Quayle insists that protecting Americans must come before treaty obligations: The ABM treaty is out of date and the US should withdraw from it.

In a policy shift, Defense Secretary William Cohen announced last Thursday the administration will ask for $6.6 billion over five years to build a missile-defense system when one is found feasible. (The government is currently spending $4 billion on research and development.)

At the same time, however, the US will seek talks with Russia to discuss modifying the treaty to permit deployment of a system. If agreement can't be reached, Cohen says, the US could exercise its treaty right to withdraw.

The ABM treaty guards against building a complete defense against nuclear attack (as if that were possible). The system the US proposes can probably be made to fit into the treaty, assuming the Russians agree to the necessary changes. That's not a given.

But the US shouldn't just nonchalantly drag the ABM treaty into the recycle bin. The treaty is a keystone of arms-control efforts and is in US interests for two reasons:

First, because it's tied to the fate of the START II strategic arms reductions pact. The Russian Duma (parliament) has yet to ratify START II. Some Russian opponents of ratification use the excuse that the US Congress hasn't ratified ABM treaty amendments from 1997.

START II ratification is needed in order to proceed to even deeper cuts in arms stockpiles, cuts already outlined in a potential START III treaty. While many in the US have given up on any Duma action until elections change the parliament's makeup, Republicans' unwillingness to ratify the ABM amendments doesn't help.

Second, dumping the ABM accord unilaterally could have serious political repercussions in Russia. The last thing the US wants to do is weaken the standing of Russian democrats and free-marketeers and strengthen Russia's neo-fascist nationalists and Communists. Indeed, if it's not careful, by trying to protect itself from rogue states, the US could end up creating a new one.

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