Decoding defense speak

The battle of the acronyms, you might call it.

NMD - national missile defense. You're going to hear a lot in coming months about NMD along with ABM, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. And you're going to be hearing that the Russians, the Chinese, and a whole lot of other people are worried about what NMD will do to ABM.

Why should they be worried about a shield, an umbrella, which, if it ever works, will be there just to protect us against some rogue North Korean or Iranian missile or two? To understand that, you have to understand another acronym, MAD, or mutually assured destruction, which is the premise for the ABM Treaty that Presidents Nixon and Brezhnev signed in 1972.

It goes like this: Defense becomes offense when your adversary can't be sure of his ability to retaliate against a nuclear first strike. Stability depends on both sides being vulnerable, however contradictory that may sound.

That's what Mikhail Gorbachev told President Reagan about his pet "star wars" program, SDI, or Strategic Defense Initiative, and that's what the Russians and others are telling the Bush administration about NMD.

However, NMD is a limited program that might stop a couple of North Korean, Iraqi, or Iranian missiles, but could never stop hundreds of Russian missiles. Yes, say the Russians. But once you're able to shoot down a couple of missiles, nothing will keep you from expanding the program to be able to shoot down a lot of them.

So, say the Russians, NMD will kill ABM, and then we're back in a dangerous all-out arms race. Never mind that the Soviets couldn't win an arms race back then, and Russia certainly couldn't today.

They say they have some tricks up their sleeves: decoys to fool our missiles and a shower of rockets that would overwhelm any defense.

They are talking about MIRV ICBMs. That is Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles with Multiple Independently targeted Reentry Vehicles, that is, multiwarhead missiles.

Maybe they can do that, maybe not. By the time we find out, we are all in terrible trouble.

The Russians now say they have persuaded North Korea to give up its missile program, and are working on Iran to do the same. And so, they say, once rogue states are no longer acting like rogues, we shouldn't need NMD unless it's aimed at somebody else.

That's the state of play on NMD vs. ABM. The Bush administration says it will forge ahead with NMD and pull out of ABM if necessary. The Russians are forging ahead with what we might call AMD - Anti-Missile Defense.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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