TCS Daily

Politicians Will Build It

By Newt Gingrich - April 1, 2001 12:00 AM

Because the people want protection

President Bush campaigned by promising to build a defense against ballistic missiles as soon as possible. He showed he intended to keep that vow when he appointed Don Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld chaired the national commission that raised the alarm a couple years ago about America's urgent need to protect itself against missile attacks.

Opponents (most, but not all, from the political Left) will attempt to weaken or limit any missile defense the President proposes. Some will insist that a missile defense system could begin a new arms race. Overseas adversaries, and even many of our allies, will attempt to slow down or block development. They know such a system will make America even stronger and more capable of using power abroad with limited risks at home, dramatizing their own relative lack of military capability.

Ironically, though, opponents' noisy objections may actually enhance the chances that a strong missile defense will be built. For there is already a broad and growing bipartisan consensus in favor of constructing at least a limited missile shield. A cycle of national dialogue on this subject will only cement the dimensions of the threat in the minds of Americans, leading to even stronger public demands for protection from such an assault. So I believe Bush and Rumsfeld will get their anti-missile umbrella. The only real question is what kind of system will be deployed, and how rapidly.

In response to rising pressure from public opinion and from Republicans in Congress, the Clinton administration grudgingly began to promote a missile defense design in the late 1990s. It was a very limited assemblage tortuously set up to fit within the confines of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty signed with the Soviet Union. There would be only a single site for interceptors, they would be carefully limited in number, and there would be no second or third layer of defense.

Clinton's determination to avoid re-negotiating or withdrawing from the ABM Treaty meant we were committed to a small "missile hits a missile" system that is technologically difficult to build and less likely to be effective than other alternatives. This hit-to-kill method intercepts warheads as they re-enter the atmosphere, moving at maximum speed, and potentially in tandem with numerous decoys released from the same rocket. Many experts believe this system was badly conceived and should be shelved and replaced by one more likely to succeed.

The Clinton administration in effect tried to appease opponents by building the weakest possible ABM structure. They did everything they could to tie America into a minimalist and highly limited defense. They put strict technological constraints on the system in order to adhere to the legalisms of the ABM Treaty. And their diplomatic efforts overseas were so feeble and ill-considered they alienated key allies and actually made them more opposed to an American missile defense.

The Clinton approach is so bad it would be better to build no system at all rather than waste resources on this ill-considered one. America could actually be more vulnerable if it puts its faith in a hamstrung system that is easy to penetrate. The Clinton defense could create a false sense of security. It cannot be repaired or improved. It needs to be scrapped and replaced by an entirely different approach.

A more promising system now being considered by defense experts focuses on destroying missiles shortly after they launch, while they are still climbing upward through the atmosphere. This has two enormous advantages. First, during this boost phase the missile is a much larger, slower, softer and more vulnerable target than a warhead re-entering the atmosphere from space. Second, hitting the missile early means no decoys will have been released to drown the defense system in false targets. A single missile killed in the boost phase might eliminate ten to 30 potential targets at re-entry.

The Pentagon has recognized the advantages of boost-phase defense, and a number of proposals have been made to develop methods of defeating missiles shortly after they take off. The potential launch sites of nations like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are close enough to the ocean that a U.S. Navy ship might be able to knock down offensive missiles without too much difficulty from offshore. In addition to keeping defensive missiles onboard ships we would need new satellites for detecting hostile launches and helping to target our anti-missile missiles. As a result, we would have to discard our ABM Treaty agreements with the now-defunct Soviet Union in order to build such a system-which would in itself be a very sensible decision.

Opponents complain missile defenses could be costly. But it is vitally important to keep in mind the potential costs of a failure to act on this front. Today we have absolutely no defense against weapons of mass destruction-nuclear, chemical, or biological-launched against the United States. As a result, hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans could be killed by just one rocket. If there exists a technological alternative that could protect American cities (and those of our friends and allies) from such a catastrophe, we have an absolute moral imperative to develop it.

If we are going to stop all dangerous missiles in their boost phase, even those launched from sites too far inland to be knocked down by ship-based interceptors, we will eventually need a third layer of defense: space-based interceptors. This will stir up additional opposition from activists who argue space must be kept pristine and "non-militarized."

Responsible political leaders must point out that resisting the placement of military lasers or small tactical nuclear warheads in earth's orbit in order to protect the purity of space makes no sense if the alternative is for a much larger nuclear weapon to go off over a city, killing hundreds of thousands or millions of people and poisoning the atmosphere. Only ideological fanatics would choose the second option. Missile defenders must make this clear.

There are those today who refuse to take the danger of a nuclear attack on an American city seriously-because it would lead to programs they would rather not support. As the Bush administration begins to explain how real the threat is, and how dreadful the consequences of a missile attack with a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon of mass destruction would be, public pressure will certainly build for robust and technologically advanced defenses.

The longer opponents fight the deployment of a modest ABM system, the more advocates will be forced to illustrate the dangers to Americans; the more hearings Congress has to hold on the mortal threat to our cities, the bolder the proposals will become. Ironically, then, stubborn opposition to missile defense is likely to yield only wider public demand for even bigger systems. The reality of mass-kill weapons development in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, India, China, and other countries is not going to go away, and the more that Americans examine these realities, the more adamant they are likely to become in seeking protection.

Our democracy will educate itself on the potential horrors of modern weapons in the hands of dangerous opponents and insist on a national response. Politicians-of both parties-will ultimately follow the public. The system will be built.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Reprinted with permission from The American Enterprise magazine


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