ABCs of ABM and missile defense


Re-ignition of heated debate about missile defense, the ABM Treaty, and another arms race befuddles many normal Americans. Can these cold-war relics really dominate President Clinton's agenda in his first meeting with Russia's new president next month in Moscow?

One is reminded of Yogi Berra's observation that this is "dj vu all over again."

Mr. Clinton has promised to announce this summer his decision about deployment of a national missile-defense (NMD) system. When they meet in Moscow in June, Clinton will attempt to persuade President Vladimir Putin to accept modest amendments of the ABM Treaty that will allow the US to announce deployment of NMD and begin pouring concrete in Alaska.

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Amidst the "acronym-mania" of defense programs, the Russian, Chinese, and European leaders' claims that this will "ignite a new arms race," advocates' assertions that deployment of national missile defense will "protect the US against the most urgent threats to American security," and opponents' contention that this initiative will "shatter the cornerstone of stability in the post-cold war world," citizens can reasonably be confused.

A primer may be of some help for those seeking to understand the issues.

Why the urgency? Because North Korea has a missile that, according to CIA estimates, could deliver at least chemical and biological agents to the Western US. North Korea could test a more capable missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the US within the next 15 years.

How much will NMD cost? The latest GAO report estimates $60 billion for 100 antiballistic missile launchers in Alaska plus an upgrade of US radars and early warning systems that, on optimistic technological assumptions, will be able to shoot down 10 unsophisticated missiles from North Korea.

Is there more to come? The Clinton administration envisages a second phase of deployment including an additional 100 launchers in North Dakota that would be better able to protect all 50 states against potential future threats from missiles in Iran or Iraq. Republican advocates of missile defense propose further deployments from sea- and space-based elements to provide a more robust missile defense

What are the key arguments of the advocates? Firstly, the threat: North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and others are seeking to develop long-range missiles. The latest CIA estimate finds that "during the next 15 years the US will likely face ICBM threats from Russia, China, and North Korea, probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq." Secondly, the ABM treaty is a cold war relic: Allowing Russia or any other state to veto actions necessary to protect American security is unacceptable.

What are key opponent arguments? The threat is not as grave as claimed and is not the largest threat on the horizon. The North Korean missile program has in fact been frozen by recent agreements with the US and South Korea. Secondly, the current ballistic missile-defense technology does not work. Tests have so far failed and simple countermeasures such as decoys can render a system ineffective. Thirdly, deployment could ignite a new arms race with Russia and China.

What is Gov. George W. Bush's position on missile defense? He favors postponing the decision on NMD until the next president's administration and then "build[ing] effective missile defenses at the earliest possible date." He would withdraw from the ABM Treaty unilaterally (with due notice) if Russia doesn't agree to changes allowing a defense system that would "protect all 50 states - and our friends and allies and deployed forces overseas - from missile attacks by rogue nations, or accidental launches." Such a system would undoubtedly include sea and even space-based ballistic defense.

What is Vice President Al Gore's position on missile defense? He believes any missile-defense system should be limited in scope and argues that a global "Star Wars" system would be unworkable. He favors negotiated changes in the ABM Treaty that would lead to a "responsible and practical defense against a nuclear attack from a rogue state."

Is the technology in fact ready? Building an effective missile defense is technologically very ambitious. Advances in technological capabilities to identify and intercept launches and missiles will at some point make feasible a ballistic missile-defense system that has some degree of effectiveness. However, experts believe that any decision about deployment now is premature.

In the hierarchy of threats to American national security, where do long-range missiles from North Korea, Iran, or Iraq rank? A recent CIA assessment concludes, "US territory is probably more likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction from nonmissile delivery means than by missiles."

What will be the net effect of NMD on US security? Fearing that its nuclear deterrent could be undermined, Russia has threatened to abrogate all current arms control treaties. Objective constraints imposed by a total Russian defense budget of less than $5 billion make an all-out arms race impossible.

Russia could respond in other ways, including keeping older missiles on station, adding multiple warheads to new missiles, and maintaining nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert. Russia would also be less likely to reduce its large weapons complex and bloated stockpiles of bomb materials.

China could accelerate its missile program, stimulating further development of nuclear missile deployment by India and Pakistan. In sum, in the absence of a US-Russia agreement, NMD deployment is likely to do more to undermine our security than to improve it.

Having examined the issue, I believe that national missile defense is a secondary item on the larger defense agenda. By far the largest threat to American lives and liberties today is the risk of "loose nukes" falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. American money and energy would be much better spent securing Russia's nuclear materials and know-how, preventing theft and smuggling, and reducing stockpiles of excess weapons.

The central truth is that the nuclear sword of Damocles that hung over the world has not disappeared. Rather, it has morphed. Fortunately, today we do not have Cuban Missile crises that force citizens to experience existentially the fear of nuclear danger.

But, unfortunately, that leads many to imagine that these weapons have somehow disappeared. Even though it may seem like the re-run of an old movie from the 1980s, the current debate can remind all Americans of the continued presence and threat of nuclear weapons.

*Graham T. Allison, a former assistant secretary of defense, is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. This article is drawn from his speech to the International Press Institute World Congress on May 3, 2000.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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