TCS Daily

New Weapon for a New World Order

By Richard Perle - April 1, 2001 12:00 AM

How missile defense makes the entire globe safer

The question is not whether a ballistic missile with a nuclear or chemical or biological warhead capable of killing hundreds of thousands of Americans will wind up in the hands of a hostile power. The question is when.

Pinpointing the exact date is a game played by intelligence agencies, rather like an office pool on the outcome of the Super Bowl. In the Super Bowl, though, you at least know who the players are. When it comes to the acquisition of a ballistic missile or a nuclear warhead, there is no sure way of telling.

That is why it is so urgent we begin now to build a system capable of intercepting the missile that we know is coming. The argument for getting on with it is overwhelming. The arguments against are unconvincingand drawn mostly from ideas that developed during the Cold War but have been rendered irrelevant by its end.

The best argument in favor of building a missile defense system is a moral one: It will save lives, in large numbers, in other countries as well as our own. It will discourage the proliferation of missiles and warheads of mass destruction. It will make the world stabler and safer.

Consider the following scenario, for example. Imagine a sharp rise in tension between traditional adversaries India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Suppose the United States Navy could dispatch an Aegis cruiser to the region with instructions to intercept any ballistic missile fired by either side. Such a capability in American hands would be highly stabilizing, discouraging hair-trigger missile attacks, reducing the likelihood of conflict breaking out in the first place, reassuring both sides.

Nations like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are trying to acquire long-range missiles. They believe that possessing even a single missile will catapult them into a select class of powers, gaining great leverage because they will be capable of inflicting massive damage on the United States or its friends and allies. And given time and money, these countries can reasonably hope to possess a single missile, or even several.

But suppose we constructed a defense that could intercept all the warheads and decoys carried by 100 or 200 enemy missiles. A Saddam Hussein in Iraq or a Kim Jong Il in North Korea would lose any confidence he could land a missile on New York or Chicago or an allied capital. The relatively easy task of acquiring a missile or two would become the impossible burden of acquiring hundreds.

In that case, even a determined adversary is likely to throw up his hands and conclude that enhancing his power with nuclear long-range missiles is simply too hard. Imagine a meeting of Saddam Hussein with his military advisors. The general in charge of Iraq's armored force pleads for money to buy new tanks and spare parts for old ones, while the general in charge of missile development requests billions of dollars for construction and testing of a new missile. If the United States has the ability to defend itself and its allies against 100 such missiles, how does the general in charge of the missile program answer Saddam's question, "What good is a $10 billion missile if the Americans can knock it down?"

In short, the best way to protect against missile dangers is to discourage our adversaries from investing in the missiles in the first place. There can be no more powerful disincentive than to have a shield that guarantees their hugely expensive programs will fail. It is that shield, based on our most advanced technology, that will protect America bestnot the flotsam of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to which the opponents of missile defense cling like shipwrecked sailors.

Some Americans still treat the ABM Treaty with reverence. It remains a primary obstacle to our going forward with missile defense, so a short history lesson is needed to explain why the treaty is hopelessly obsolete.

Cold War nuclear theology held that if one side were to deploy a defense against ballistic missiles, the other side would simply build more missiles in numbers sufficient to overwhelm the defense. Thus the specter of an arms race, often described as an "ever upward spiral," became a central theme in foreign offices and ministries of defense around the world.

So, in 1972 the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty banning the deployment of national missile defenses. Reflecting the logic of the Cold War, the ABM Treaty sought to assure each side that the other was vulnerable to a retaliatory missile attack. Given the deep political, ideological, and military divisions between the superpowers at that time, the notion gained currency that vulnerability to a missile attack with many nuclear weapons was a good thing. This "Mutual Assured Destruction" would keep anyone from attacking and thus make us safe.

Though it prohibits the deployment of a national missile defense, the ABM Treaty does allow certain research short of deployment, as well as the actual deployment of no more than 100 interceptor missiles at a single location in each country. The Russians long ago built such a system around Moscow, which they maintain today. The United States, which abandoned its own fledgling system after the 1972 treaty, has none.

In April 1983, President Reagan announced a new program of research and development to determine whether the United States could build an effective defense against ballistic missiles. The initiative was vehemently opposed by the Soviet Union, by many American intellectuals, and by anxious Europeans. Following the 1983 announcement, a succession of Soviet leaders tried to negotiate further restrictions on the deployment of defensive systems. The most important such negotiation took place in Iceland in 1986 at a summit meeting between President Reagan and Communist Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The Reykjavik summit ended when President Reagan refused to accept Soviet proposals to confine further development of missile defenses to the laboratory, a technological straitjacket which would have throttled any serious defense in its infancy.

Because we cling to an obsolete treaty with a nation that no longer exists, the United States stands naked today before its enemies, unable to intercept even a single ballistic missile aimed, by accident or design, at our territory. Many Americans are shocked to learn that this condition of abject vulnerability is the freely chosen policy of the government of the United States and widely insisted upon by America's allies.

Frozen in the Cold War like a fly in amber, the Clinton administration's policies were based on the outdated idea that our exposure to attack by ballistic missiles actually made us safer. Clintonites argued the vulnerability that developed during the Cold War should become a permanent feature of American policy, enshrined in a trivially modifiedand thereby reinvigoratedABM Treaty.

Under political pressure in the last election year not to cede the issue of missile defense to the Republicans, President Clinton toyed with deployment of a manifestly inadequate system in Alaska that could not protect all of the U.S. or any of our allies. It was a system designed more to remain within the confines of the ABM Treaty than to actually defend the country. Clinton chose to develop a system so modest and ineffective as to be useless for all but political purposes.

Mired in Cold War thinking, the Clinton administration argued that a technologically serious defense, even if limited, would precipitate an arms race. The administration actually assured the Russians in meetings that even if the U.S. built an effective defense in Alaska, Russia would still be able to incinerate the United States at any time. It is hard to imagine a mind-set more reflective of the Cold War than that.

The idea that the ABM Treaty is a cornerstone of stability is especially popular among America's European allies. But it seems fair to ask: How can a treaty that was the cornerstone of stability in 1972 remain our foundation in the year 2001? After all, there is almost nothing in common between the geopolitical situation in the middle of the Cold War and the situation today. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who negotiated the ABM Treaty, has argued convincingly that it no longer serves American interests. I think that argument can be broadened to include Western interests generally.

Some Europeans have claimed that Europe could become a target of convenience if an American missile defense left potential adversaries unable to attack the U.S. directly. In this scenario, a Saddam Hussein or a Kim Jong Il might think, "If I can't destroy New York, I'll just have to destroy Berlin or Paris instead." I suppose one can't rule out such a development, though it surely is not high on the list of things French President Jacques Chirac or German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder ought to be worrying about.

The idea, though, gives rise to several thoughts. First, this bizarre concern shows that the Europeans recognize there may indeed be a threat from ballistic missiles in the hands of unpredictable, vindictive, malicious leaders. After hearing any number of learned Europeans tell us that there is no threat, or that we are overstating it, this is a welcome acknowledgment. Second, any missile defense we plan can and should cover our European allies. I believe the Bush administration will think in those terms, even if the Clinton administration did not.

In any case, what are the Europeans expecting of us? Do they think their concerns will have America responding, "Oh, how silly of us to think we should defend ourselves. If you're worried that could put you in harm's way, we'll just drop the whole idea and remain vulnerable. We certainly would not want our defense to cause you any concern."

Consider: with no missile defense, even one incoming warhead could do catastrophic harm to Los Angeles or Washington or New York. A handful would mean destruction beyond imagination. Now, suppose we were to deploy a defense capable of countering not one or a handful, but a few hundred incoming warheads. With such a defense, we might no longer be vulnerable to such nuclear powers as, say, Great Britain or France, which have their own deterrent forces. Would the British then feel compelled to build more nuclear weapons to overpower our defense?

Of course not. Why not? Because they don't regard the United States as an enemy. They don't fear an American attack. (Actually the French do fear an attack but (a) it comes from Hollywood and not the U.S. military, (b) it is truly devastating, and (c) while Chirac may think our anti-missile system won't work, I know his defense against American culture will fail.) In other words, it is the political context, not the weapons themselves, that determines whether, and to what extent, any particular military capability is threatening.

Now that the Cold War is over, should Russia regard us as an enemy? We are more likely to send Mr. Putin a check than a barrage of missiles with nuclear warheads. We have sought in countless ways to work with, not against, the Russians. We have muted our criticismwrongly in my viewof Russia's outrageous assault on civilians in Chechnya. It is unimaginable that we would launch thousands of nuclear weapons against Russia and hope to benefit thereby. And that would be true even if we had a defense that could knock down every missile that might be launched in retaliation.

Would it make sense for Mr. Putin to respond to an American defense against North Korea or Saddam Hussein by building more missiles? Is the Russian economy in a condition where such a vast investment in new weapons would benefit his country? And what about China? We recently sent them an invitation into the world trading system. Should they fear an American missile attack? Or regard an American defense as a threat to China? And even if they did think in these terms, should we remain vulnerable to all the world just to reassure them?

Sometimes we hear that perceptions, not reality, are what counts: If the Russians or the Chinese perceive the United States as a threat and therefore regard any anti-missile system we may build as a danger, shouldn't the U.S. stand down?

This seems a particularly unwise line of argument. In psychiatry it would lead to humoring paranoids by accepting their paranoia and acting to accommodate baseless fears. In science it would mean the abandonment of rigor and discipline, pretending instead of proving. And in international politics it would mean nurturing rather than finding ways to correct false, dangerous, and even self-fulfilling ideas.

The final argument in favor of ballistic missile defense is an ethical one, and the most compelling: During the great clash of the Cold War, it may have been defensible to threaten to kill millions of innocents with nuclear weapons in order to deter massive Soviet attacks on the West. But it is not morally defensible now to say we will kill, say, tens of thousands of innocent men and women in Afghanistan if Osama bin Laden launches a single rather crude missile at Naples. It is now terrorists and tyrants who threaten us, not empires, and we must therefore have more selective and sophisticated ways of defending ourselves.

The Cold War is over, but we will not realize the full benefit of its passing until everyone involved behaves accordinglyabandoning the fears and apprehensions of half a century of conflict, and the outdated ideas about security that flowed from that long, dark struggle.

Clinging to the notion that the security of others is diminished if the United States is protected against missile attack only perpetuates the anxiety of the Cold War. And that is a climate we must transcend nowso that we may protect ourselves and our allies against the real threats we face today.

Richard Perle is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He served as Assistant Secretary for International Security Policy at the Defense Department from 1981 to 1987.

Reprinted with permission from The American Enterprise magazine


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