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Rude awakening to missile-defense dream

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When President Bush came to power in 2001, there was a dramatic change in posture regarding ballistic missile defense. The administration announced it was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, clearing away development and operational constraints. At the same time, the administration laid out a comprehensive plan that envisioned a layered missile-defense system. After studying the SS-25 missile for years, the US military believed it finally had a solution in the form of a multitiered antiballistic missile system that focused on boost-phase intercept (firing antimissile missiles that would home in on an ICBM shortly after launch), space-based laser systems designed to knock out a missile in flight, and terminal missile intercept systems, which would destroy a missile as it reentered the earth's atmosphere.

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The NMD system being fielded to counter the SS-25, and any similar or less sophisticated threats that may emerge from China, Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere, will probably have cumulative costs between $800 billion and $1.2 trillion by the time it reaches completion in 2015.

However, the Bush administration's dream of a viable NMD has been rendered fantasy by the Russian test of the SS-27 Topol-M. According to the Russians, the Topol-M has high-speed solid-fuel boosters that rapidly lift the missile into the atmosphere, making boost-phase interception impossible unless one is located practically next door to the launcher. The SS-27 has been hardened against laser weapons and has a highly maneuverable post-boost vehicle that can defeat any intercept capability as it dispenses up to three warheads and four sophisticated decoys.

To counter the SS-27 threat, the US will need to start from scratch. And even if a viable defense could be mustered, by that time the Russians may have fielded an even more sophisticated missile, remaining one step ahead of any US countermeasures. The US cannot afford to spend billions of dollars on a missile-defense system that will never achieve the level of defense envisioned. The Bush administration's embrace of technology, and rejection of diplomacy, when it comes to arms control has failed.

If America continues down the current path of trying to field a viable missile-defense system, significant cuts will need to be made in other areas of the defense budget, or funds reallocated from other nonmilitary spending programs. With America already engaged in a costly war in Iraq, and with the possibility of additional conflict with Iran, Syria, or North Korea looming on the horizon, funding a missile-defense system that not only does not work as designed, but even if it did, would not be capable of defending America from threats such as the Topol-M missile, makes no sense.

The Bush administration would do well to reconsider its commitment to a national missile-defense system, and instead reengage in the kind of treaty-based diplomacy that in the past produced arms control results that were both real and lasting. This would not only save billions, it would make America, and the world, a safer place.

Scott Ritter is a former intelligence officer and weapons inspector in the Soviet Union (1988-1990) and Iraq (1991-1998). He is author of 'Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America.'

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