TCS Daily

A Shield, Not a Sword

By Dale Franks - June 27, 2002 12:00 AM

It's been several days since the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty expired. Despite the shrill cries of doom we've been hearing for the last year from the Perennially Worried, the earth is still calmly spinning on its axis. We were warned that pulling out of the ABM Treaty would destroy our relationship with Russia, and would initiate a new arms race. In contrast, since the Bush administration announced we were exercising our right to rescind the treaty, our relationship with the Russians has become even closer, and we have agreed to eliminate the lion's share of our stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, even though the intellectual bankruptcy of their arguments on the ABM Treaty have become clear, these same critics now turn their arguments against the idea of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). Unsurprisingly, their arguments against BMD are similarly weak.

The critics tell us that BMD will never work. Oddly enough, however, the recent BMD testing appears to have been uniformly successful. I'm no rocket scientist, but it seems logical to me to continue the successful testing of a BMD system, rather than give it up as hopeless, simply because the naysayers would prefer it. President Bush is no rocket scientist either (Yes, yes, I know. Spare me the wise cracks.), but he has a lot of rocket scientists working for him on this, and so far, they appear to have accomplished their goals. Besides, if BMD won't work, then why are the critics so afraid of letting testing continue? After all, if it won't work they'll be vindicated, and the program will end anyway.

The second argument the critics present is that, even if it does work, BMD won't protect us against a full-out nuclear assault. One must ask, however, from where will that full-scale nuclear assault come? Only two nations, Russia and China, have both the requisite nuclear arsenal and the technology to deliver it to the US. And only Russia has the ability to deliver weapons beyond the western US. Now, it may very well be that, at the end of the day, a BMD system will not be able to stop a full-scale USSR-style nuclear attack with our current technology. But, if it stops a small-scale attack, whether by a terrorist organization, or rogue state with a limited number of missiles, it would still be worth the price. The critics' argument is essentially that a BMD system must not be deployed unless it can stop all conceivable missile attacks. Such an argument makes the perfect the enemy of the good. It also denies us any missile defense against any threat, simply because BMD isn't a total solution for all missile related problems.

The critics also propose the argument that BMD is destabilizing, and will lead to proliferation. The trouble with this argument is that, since we now have absolutely no defense against nuclear missiles, this provides an incentive to rogue states to engage in nuclear blackmail right now. Even if we have the power to utterly destroy a rogue state with our nuclear arsenal, would a US president sacrifice, say, Chicago, rather than lift economic sanctions on Iraq? The lack of a defensive shield against nuclear-armed missiles makes their use as a blackmail weapon more probable, not less.

In reply, the critics argue that rogue states could simply acquire more nuclear weapons in an attempt to overcome such a shield. Perhaps, but it would be an extremely expensive option for most states, and one that would be difficult to implement and maintain without both the human and material resources to support it. The Soviet Union managed to accomplish it for a while, but it bankrupted them in the end, and the USSR dissolved. Building a nuclear bomb is not exceptionally difficult. The technology is, after all, more than 50 years old. Building the infrastructure to maintain a large nuclear ballistic missile arsenal is vastly more complex and expensive, putting it beyond the means of most states, no matter how much they might desire it.

The arguments for BMD go far beyond answering the critics, however.

The government has a moral duty to defend the citizens of the United States. For many years, this defense consisted of deterrence, in the form of the threat of mutual destruction between the US and USSR. Apart from anything else, it was the only option open to us. But if the technology exists to save lives, instead of taking them, to defend against attacks instead of retaliating for them, then it must be used.

Modern democracies are neither warlike, nor comfortable with reliance on mass slaughter. In defending our citizens, therefore, a shield is better than a sword.



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