The red glare of too many rockets

Fifteen years after the end of the cold war, events suggest big-power standoffs with missiles may be back: China has knocked out a satellite in space, Iran is set to launch a multistage rocket, and the US is deploying antimissile defenses in Europe and Asia.

And that comes on top of last year's launch of seven ballistic missiles by North Korea on July 4, including a long-range rocket capable of reaching US soil. (And on Oct. 9, that tiny nation also test-fired a nuclear device underground.)

Looking back someday at these developments in missile technology, current concerns about Islamic terrorism and the Iraq war could be seen as short-term worries. Instead, the world may regret not having come to grips with missile proliferation, which may not be as easy to constrain as it was during the cold-war era.

A future "Cuban missile crisis" may not end with the kind of cool calculation to avoid mutual destruction that the Soviets and Americans made during their 1962 standoff. [Editor's note: The original version misdated the Cuban missile crisis.]

So the need is great for more peacemakers to argue for new ways to avoid the path of more aggressive deployment of these delivery systems (or their countermeasures, antimissile defenses) – and especially in space where verification can be very difficult. Current international agreements on missile technology simply aren't working.

More fundamentally, missile escalation thrives on mutual suspicion and lack of military transparency between, say, the US and China. The first step is information about the other side's intentions and capability.

China took a step toward greater transparency this month with an unusually blunt white paper about its military future and strategic concerns. But then just two weeks later, after the paper made such statements as "outer space is the common wealth of mankind," China made a surprise launch of a rocket that destroyed one of its out-of-date weather satellites.

This bold display of power in space implied that China may try to disable US surveillance satellites during a possible military crisis over Taiwan, North Korea, or even Japan. Or it could be a warning to Japan and Taiwan not to proceed with antimissile defenses supplied by the US. Or, by one theory, China may be signaling to the US that it wants to negotiate a treaty on space weaponry. President Bush has rejected such pleas in the past, saying the US must keep "freedom of action" in space. He's also negated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty.

Iran, too, has raised the stakes with steady progress in missiles. It reportedly plans to launch its first multistage rocket soon, capable of putting a satellite in space – or of sending a weapon to Europe or the US. Such a development has spurred the US and Europe toward deploying interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar tracking station in the Czech Republic. And that move has brought howls from Russia.

No matter how advanced the US may become in missile capability, some nations may decide they can thwart such efforts with their missile advances. The better course would be to negotiate agreements that better recognize the obvious: Missile proliferation, especially in space, may only bring the very instability that missiles supposedly aim to prevent.

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