Last week's failed flight test of a missile interceptor should provoke a careful reevaluation by the Clinton administration of its plan to deploy a national missile defense "as soon as technologically possible."
Following reports that last October's interceptor test was not the perfect success it was thought to have been, this setback again demonstrates the imposing technical obstacles involved in fielding an effective national missile defense (NMD) system.
In addition to its daunting technological and financial hurdles, an NMD would imperil the the nation's fragile strategic partnerships with Russia and China, strain relations with European allies, and perhaps threaten existing arms-control and nonproliferation agreements.
The Clinton administration, driven by congressional prodding, is pushing for deployment under a timetable that top Pentagon officials say is a severe technical challenge to meet. Originally the NMD system was slated for deployment by 2003, with all of the interceptor tests to be conducted prior to that date.
This compressed program schedule prompted an independent panel headed by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch to conclude last February that this system was "on a rush to failure." The panel issued a highly critical report this fall stating that the NMD program was plagued by management lapses, inadequate testing, and hardware shortages. The deployment date has been rescheduled to 2005. Clinton plans to decide by July whether or not to deploy the NMD. But only three of the 19 planned flight tests will likely have been completed by then.
Given the $12.7 billion price tag on the system, moving forward with an inadequately tested missile shield is unjustifiable.
Even if the NMD program managers can surmount the technical and financial obstacles they face, the strategic and diplomatic consequences of a deployment require much reflection.
Both Russia and China have expressed extreme displeasure over a potential deployment. Russia recently announced it is leaning on its nuclear arsenal to compensate for its weakening conventional forces. Its military planners see even a limited deployment as a threat to its residual deterrent forces, which are designed to respond to a US nuclear strike.
If Moscow doubts the credibility of its own deterrent, it is highly unlikely to sign future pacts to further reduce its nuclear arsenal. A US decision to deploy a missile shield, followed by a likely Russian withdrawal from the landmark 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, will also endanger existing arms control agreements with Russia.
US-Russia bilateral nuclear accords are seen by the world as a critical indicator of their commitment to eventual nuclear disarmament. The failure of those accords could inflict irreparable damage to the global system of nuclear nonproliferation agreements.
Finally, an NMD system would likely imperil existing efforts by the US to assist Russia in safely dismantling its strategic offensive weapons and prevent the diversion of nuclear material removed from warheads.
China perceives an even greater threat to its much smaller deterrent forces, believed to number around 20 or so missiles capable of traveling intercontinental distances.
Its aging missiles require much time for fueling prior to launch. And they are immobile, making them highly vulnerable to a disarming first-strike by the US. Beijing officials have said US NMD system may prompt China to step up the pace of its nuclear modernization efforts.
Across the Atlantic, European officials are concerned that their own security will be undermined by growing tensions with Russia. They worry that their transatlantic defense partnership with the US might erode because of the perception that the US is providing for its own security at the expense of Europe's.
The rest of the international community shares Europe's concern. Within the UN General Assembly in November, many countries opposed US plans to amend the ABM Treaty to permit a nationwide missile defense. A UN draft resolution reinforcing the treaty as a cornerstone of international peace and stability won approval by a margin of 54 to 4.
The serious strategic and diplomatic consequences of deploying an NMD raise the question of whether the threat posed by states such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq merits a national missile shield. The evidence here is mixed, as illustrated by recent satellite photos of North Korea's primary missile test site suggesting that its program is less developed than many analysts previously believed.
The administration should seriously consider delaying a decision on deployment until after the election season. Then a bipartisan decision can be reached that is driven more by sound policies than domestic politics.
With a delay, more tests can be conducted and a more compelling case might be made to Russia, China, and our allies that "rogue" opponents have the technology and will to lash out with intercontinental ballistic missiles. One step may be to form a US-Russia commission to jointly evaluate the missile threat.
The emerging consensus in Washington in favor of a missile shield suggests that many analysts have fallen for the romantic notion of a fortress that guards the American people against enemy missiles. However, a host of technological, financial, and, most crucially, geostrategic factors, suggest that this issue deserves more intense debate and public scrutiny before a final decision can be made.
*Atman Trivedi is a national-security analyst for Science Applications International Corporation, in McLean, Va. The views expressed here are his own.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society