Why missile defense is a bad idea

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Donald Rumsfeld, the new Defense secretary, has captured the imagination of the press and the public with his vision of national missile defense.

If Mr. Rumsfeld accepts existing Pentagon guidelines, a decision to build or not to build missile defense could come as early as March. Since this will be an extremely important decision by a young administration, the time to debate it is now.

Missile defense has two basic problems: It can't do what it is supposed to do, and it creates the very threats to American national security it is supposed to resolve.

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Why won't missile defense work? As a technical matter, it is enormously easier to send a missile up into the air than to destroy a missile coming down from the sky. No known technology could protect Americans from a missile attack. Every test so far has been rigged; even so, nearly every test has been a failure. Physicists largely agree that the technology to build effective national missile defense does not exist. (See the December 2000 issue of Physics Today, or the website of the American Physical Society, www.aps.org.)

Let's assume we were able to hit a missile coming down from the sky, which we are not. Any state that wished to defeat our system could build cheap countermeasures. Just as it will always be easier to send a missile into the sky than to shoot it down from the ground, it will always be cheaper to build countermeasures than it will be to improve missile defense. Against basic physics even the most expensive government programs are powerless.

The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on missile defense would create a false sense of security regarding the very real threat of international terrorism. Missile defense isn't designed to protect Americans from terrorist attacks by means other than ballistic missiles, and ballistic missiles aren't a likely terrorist weapon. The costly attempt to build missile defense diverts resources and attention from prosaic policies that would reduce our vulnerability to attacks by biological, chemical, or nuclear agents.

In addition to a misplaced feeling of security, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on missile defense will purchase international isolation and vulnerability. Our European and Japanese allies oppose national missile defense, arguing that it will bring insecurity and make war much more likely. Both the Europeans and the Japanese anticipate that missile defense will weaken their alliances with the US. Why are they so upset about missile defense?

For one thing, they know how Russia and China will react. Although missile defense will not work, the Russians and Chinese must assume the contrary. Since it is much cheaper to build nuclear missiles than it is to build missile defense, they can afford to make this assumption. The Chinese, who today have only a modest nuclear arsenal, would probably become a major nuclear power. A Chinese buildup, combined with what the Japanese would see as irresponsible US policy, would force the Japanese to consider building nuclear weapons. After a Chinese buildup, India would enlarge its nuclear arsenal, and Pakistan would do the same. Iran would probably go nuclear. Peacemaking efforts in the Mideast and Korea would suffer.

Like the Chinese, the Russians would protect their own interests by having enough missiles to be sure to overwhelm the system. Fearing that missile defense would allow us to plan a nuclear first strike, Russia would ensure that it has enough missiles to strike back. In so doing, Russia would bury the treaty system developed by Washington and Moscow over the past 30 years to prevent nuclear war. The fault would be ours. The foundation of nuclear arms control is the ABM Treaty, which bans missile defense. If we build missile defense, we must either violate or withdraw from that treaty, and we issue Russia carte blanche to do its worst.

If the US builds national missile defense, we create a world full of nuclear weapons, where our allies strike out on their own, rivals become enemies, and no one feels bound by previous agreements. Missile defense is likely to contribute to new world anarchy, and will not protect us from the consequences. These are matters to be considered before any final decision is taken.

Timothy Snyder is a historian at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. Philip Snyder is a physicist in San Diego. The views expressed here are their own.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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