TCS Daily

The Democratic Politburo

By Melana Zyla Vickers - June 13, 2002 12:00 AM

Like frustrated environmentalists straining in defense of the red-cockaded woodpecker, 31 Democratic members of Congress on Tuesday sued President Bush over his decision to pull the U.S. out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty - a withdrawal that takes effect today.

The small band of litigious lawmakers led by Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) are the lonely vanguard of the save-the-ABM movement - not even Moscow, the treaty's other signatory, raised as much of a fuss. But small doesn't mean nuisance-free. Were the Kucinich lawsuit to get some traction, it could lead to a suspension in missile-defense construction. Thankfully, the odds of derailing executive-branch national security policy with legislative-branch legal shenanigans are poor: A Supreme Court precedent from the Carter years confirms the president's Constitutional power to end a treaty.

So, barring a legal surprise, the ABM's long goodbye appears to be over, opening the door to much-needed research, testing, and development of national missile defenses. The Bush administration has wisely decided not to waste time, and on Saturday will break ground for silos that will house missile interceptors. These will be located in Alaska.

Under some interpretations of the ABM treaty, building those silos would have been impermissible: The treaty allowed interceptors to be housed at only one location in the U.S.: North Dakota. But housing them there would not have given Hawaii and Alaska protection against an attack. Now those states can be shielded. Other elements of national missile defense that now have a green light include:

  • Layered defenses: Under the ABM treaty - which had limited missile defenses to ground-based interceptors -- the interceptors would have gotten just one opportunity to fire at the missiles, as they traveled through space toward U.S. soil. Striking the missiles would have been a great challenge, since a sophisticated adversary could use decoys or large barrages of missiles to distract or overwhelm U.S. interceptors. Freed from the treaty's constraints, more varied defenses can be now used against enemy missiles, striking them as they launch (boost phase), in midcourse, and in their terminal descent.

  • Space-based lasers: Satellite-mounted lasers, which the Pentagon hopes to field in rudimentary form in 2008-10, would fire at enemy missiles as they take off. While current airborne lasers can theoretically do this, they are mounted on vulnerable 747s that can be shot out of the sky. What's more, the airborne lasers have to have the enemy missile in their line of sight when they fire - which for them means getting within miles of the missile. By contrast, space-based lasers mounted on earth-orbiting satellites aren't vulnerable to ground attack, and have global lines of sight. That means they can also be used to protect U.S. allies and not just the continental U.S. Moreover, space-based defenses have potential applications beyond missile defense.

  • Space-based kinetic-kill: Shedding the ABM treaty also allows the U.S. to consider using satellites that can shoot "smart rods" at a missile in midcourse. This capability would update the Bush I idea of "brilliant pebbles." Smart rods offer the possibility of being less expensive and pose fewer technological hurdles than space-based lasers.

To be sure, the boost-phase, midcourse, and terminal descent missile-defense plans will need to be streamlined down to the most effective ones in the coming decade - not all are likely to work equally well against such challenges as decoys and barrages of missiles. It will be the job of a vigilant Congress to ensure that Pentagon plans and money are focused properly to minimize such risks.

That'll be a big task, and one that makes the Congressional lawsuit all the more of a distraction. What's more, the lawsuit goes against the will of a majority of Americans, who according to opinion polls support national missile defense. If nothing else, it's time Congress's ABM vanguard took a page from Moscow's playbook, and stepped aside.



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