TCS Daily

Stop Getting Defensive

By James Pinkerton - March 8, 2002 12:00 AM

Here's the sort of headline in the Washington Post that every missile-defense advocate dreads: "Group Says Exaggerated Target Used In Missile Test." The March 2 article details allegations by the Union of Concerned Scientists that the Defense Department, testing National Missile Defense (NMD), is using dummy targets that are substantially larger, and thus easier to hit, than anything that the Chinese or North Koreans might actually fire at us. Indeed, the Post article continued, "The critique represents the latest in a series of commentaries by scientific groups and other missile defense skeptics calling attention to the lack of operational realism in the Pentagon's testing program."

So, you might be thinking, here we go again. While NMD might work someday against enemy projectiles, in the meantime it seems defenseless against incoming barrages from left-leaning anti-defense pressure groups, which use the pages of the Post as a delivery system. Maybe. But here's the very next sentence in the piece: "Defense officials have acknowledged heavy reliance on surrogates and artificial elements in the flight trials, but they say the testing is still at an early stage and will become more realistic."

Thus the situation: this is not an argument about fact, but instead an argument about the worldview that surrounds those facts. That is, missile-defense opponents assert that the artificiality of the tests proves that the whole idea of missile defense is a crock, while missile-defense proponents argue that such artificiality is a necessary prelude to reality. After all, supporters say, scientists usually test their hypotheses in the artificiality of the laboratory before they take their idea into the real world.

And so we come one of the paradoxes of the missile defense debate: for all the emphasis on facts and findings, the ultimate victor is likely to be the side that musters up the most faith. Not faith in the sense of prayer-if one believes intensely enough, it will happen-but rather faith in scientific and technological progress to yield up breakthroughs. That's a faith that's been vindicated countless times in the past; indeed, it's the faith that sustains industrial civilization.

But scientific faith, unlike religious faith, must continually confront real-world assessments. And one of the important assessors in the area of NMD is Bradley Graham, a veteran Washington Post reporter on the defense beat-and the author of the article mentioned above. But more importantly, Graham is also the author of an important new book on the NMD debate, Hit to Kill: The New Battle over Shielding America from Missile Attack.

Graham's work is an extremely useful overview of the last half-century of nuclear policy-he even includes a five-page glossary as an appendix-but his real focus is on the last decade, a time in which the Clinton administration at first downplayed, and downgraded, the missile defense program. But then two factors pushed the Clintonians into a more hawkish direction: first, pressure from the Republican-controlled Congress in the mid 90s; second, the successful launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea in 1998.

Hit to Kill is based on first-hand reporting, from testing sites in the Pacific to offices in the Pentagon to hearing rooms in Congress. Graham also interviewed all the major players in the debate, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And one important prediction he made in print before the fact-that the Bush Administration would junk the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty-has already come true.

So if Graham knows the issue, where does he himself come down on the issue, yea or nay? Some might argue that an article entitled "Group Says Exaggerated Target Used In Missile Test" reveals much about the predisposition of the author-although of course, reporters don't write the headlines for their pieces. And while NMD buffs might've composed a headline such as "Uncle Sam Dismisses Group as Exaggerators," the text of the March 2 article was a fair-and-balanced treatment of the debate. Indeed, the real lesson for NMDers is that they, too, need to be generating well-researched reports to submit as news items-agenda-setting by inbox-filling, it could be called.

But for now, it's worth taking a closer look at Graham's book. No doubt to the irritation of NMD friends and foes alike, he sees merit in both sides. "However they proceed," he writes, "Bush and his advisers must demonstrate that they can replace the cold war security order with something that increases rather than detracts from global security." OK, that doesn't clarify much, but Graham does demonstrate that the theories of defense doctrine that in turn guide weapons development must change as the facts themselves change. And, as for the facts on the ground, he observes, "The trend is worrisome."

Graham believes that diplomacy might be able to remove North Korea from the nuclear-threat-making business, but notes that "even if North Korea could be taken out of the picture, other rogue nations-Iran, Iraq, and Libya-may prove still more determined to acquire a substantial nuclear and missile capability."

Indeed, the rogue-nation trend has grown even more worrisome since September 11. At a luncheon held late last month by the Herbert Quandt Stiftung, the foundation of BMW, Graham took the occasion to talk more about his book, and what went into it. "I've been impressed by the dedication and know-how" of the people working on NMD, he said. But what about criticism raining down on research from groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists? While gently chiding those who criticize criticism for "a certain defensiveness," he added that "these research programs need room to grow and to breathe."

These are not the words of an NMD partisan, either way; they are the words of an NMD assessor.

So what should NMDers do? In addition to everything else, they should argue that faith in the future presupposes a faith in future technology. It is such faith, after all, that animates research into such bedeviling diseases as cancer or AIDS, even the common cold. Nobody knows for sure that any of the ailments will be cured, but if the past is prologue, there's reason for solid optimism. And meanwhile, once a compelling goal is set forth to the public, support for even "iffy" research is strong.

After all, thanks to the march of progress, the number of tasks deemed to be unachievable keeps shrinking. By contrast, the number of tasks deemed achievable keeps increasing. NMD surely falls into that latter "achievable" category.

As a thought experiment, advocates might note that if missile offense works, and if some missile defense works already-nobody argues the efficacy of tactical surface-to air missiles-then it's plausible to hypothesize that anti-missiles can someday be made to work in the strategic defense category. Missile-defense foes dispute this, of course, but almost to a person, foes don't want to see their hypothesis-that NMD can't work-tested. And that's the trump card of the pro-NMD folks: they're willing to test what they're doing, until it works.

Will Brad Graham be there to aim the light of scrutiny on the NMD effort? Yes. And will the light that he and others shine on the project sometimes burn more than it illuminates? Yes again. But if even Washington Post reporters agree that the world-security trend is "worrisome," then that's a sign that the realization that America faces real threats is widespread indeed. And so long as NMD supporters encase their technical effort inside the intellectual and doctrinal carapace of "Defend America," they will likely prevail. That impetus toward victory should give the NMD team the sort of destinarian confidence that enables it to brush off a headline or two along the way.

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