Two problems bedevil current efforts to move toward deploying missile defenses. The first arises out of the daunting technological challenge of having to "hit a bullet with a bullet" - the currently fashionable Pentagon metaphor for missile defense. The second concern reflects the potentially disturbing strategic consequences of actually deploying a missile defense - that others might view our shield as a threat, spurring a new arms race aimed at overcoming our defense with clever decoys and saturation attacks.
Both problems seem intractable, as can be seen from the latest field-test failure, and by the recently announced Sino-Russian "strategic partnership," which seems to have been catalyzed in part by fear of American missile defenses.
Neither of these difficulties should deter us from seeking ways to defend against missile attack. Long-range missiles, in the next decade, will likely become the weapons system of choice for those seeking a capability to "reach out and touch" their adversaries - wherever they are.
Missiles are so attractive because they are increasingly available, and much less expensive than having to build a carrier fleet, a strategic air force, or a technologically advanced army. And there's already evidence of willingness to wage war in this fashion. In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, both sides resorted to missile attacks in what came to be known as a "war of the cities."
During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein again used missile bombardment, lashing out even as far as Israel.
Make no mistake, long-range missile warfare is coming.
What then is to be done?
The two leading presidential candidates this year, realizing the issue's importance, offer up two somewhat differing visions of how to arrive at a national missile defense.
While both seem in agreement that the technological problems are significant, George W. Bush seems more assured that moving toward deployment now will help channel resources toward solving warhead identification and interception problems. He also seems convinced that the potentially alarming strategic consequences of our having missile defenses - when others have none - can be mitigated by the unilateral reduction of our own arsenal, and by bringing our allies under the protection of our shield.
Al Gore, on the other hand, takes a more cautious view on the issue of deployment, wanting to see first how the technological feasibility of the system looks after further testing. He also leans more toward having just a limited defense of the US against attacks by rogue states such as North Korea. He hopes the clearly limited nature of this defense will assuage Russian and Chinese fears that their own missile offenses might be emasculated.
The good news here is that both candidates would move us ahead toward missile defense. They are following the strategic path laid out by President Reagan, who was morally repelled by the prospect of nuclear war. He held the intuitive belief that there would eventually be a defense against nuclear-tipped missiles.
In light of the history of military affairs, Mr. Reagan's faith is justified. For every offensive weapon, in every age, effective defenses have arisen - from thick-walled fortifications to suits of armor, to Kevlar helmets in an ongoing cycle of action and reaction between offense and defense.
The bad news is that both candidates' approaches fail to mitigate others' fears about the strategic consequences of missile defense.
Bush's policy, in particular, suggests an expansiveness of the program that can only be seen with alarm in Moscow and Beijing. And Gore's less ambitious program will still spur fearful reactions, as even a very limited defense conveys two types of threat: first, that a workable limited system can be rapidly expanded; and second, that even a limited system can be quite effective if, say, Russian or Chinese missile launchers had first been taken out by a US precision-guided conventional missile attack. Both of these are real concerns that must be dealt with if we are to reduce the likelihood of long-range missile warfare in the coming years.
There is a "third way" to move ahead - if we will but see it - implied months ago by Russian President Vladimir Putin, when he offered to engage in joint research with the US on missile defense.
The American response to his gambit should be: "Why limit the research to ourselves? Why not invite the best scientific minds from all over the world to join the effort?"
In this way, we prove to the world the truth: that missile defense is indeed defensive. We also show the world that we understand the increasingly indivisible nature of global security. There is simply no way, anymore, to carve out a "safe area" in our portion of the Western Hemisphere, if others around the world do not subscribe to our plans.
We should remember that Reagan, who first advanced the concept of a missile shield, wanted to share it with the world, and made an offer to share our research with the Russians.
And this was during the cold war. Can we do any less now?
*John Arquilla is professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society