TCS Daily

Spiral Into Control

By Melana Zyla Vickers - January 31, 2003 12:00 AM

When President Bush said in his State of the Union address that as the U.S. deals with Iraq it "must learn the lessons of the Korean Peninsula," he was in a sense admitting that Washington has left North Korea so unchecked that it is partially able to threaten and blackmail the U.S.

What's worse, as the administration casts about for a way out of this Korean Peninsula box, critics are trashing one of the best longer-term prospects for stripping Pyongyang of its power: missile defense.

If the U.S. had national missile defenses that would protect this country from an attack, and theater defenses that could protect its troops on the peninsula, as well as South Korea and Japan, from the North's Taepo Dong and Ro Dong missiles, then Pyongyang would need to go back to the drawing board. The rogue communist state's one-prong strategy for holding regional power - by threatening its neighbors with a few nuclear missiles - would be dramatically dulled. It would be left with only its populous military's proximity to Seoul as an advantage.

Missile-defense critics don't see the value of complicating North Korea's planning in this manner. Instead, they respond to President Bush's announcement that the U.S. is "beginning to field a defense to protect this nation against ballistic missiles" by arguing that the defenses aren't ready for prime time. "Normally, you don't deploy until you're done with developmental testing and operational testing," Union of Concerned Scientists spokeswoman Lisbeth Gronlund recently told the Los Angeles Times. "If this were a tank or a gun, you couldn't do this."

Gronlund and others in her Goldilocks school of "juust right" weapons deployment couldn't be more wrong. Military history abounds with examples of weapons that were not only used, but used to great effect, long before they had reached developmental perfection.

Predator: The unmanned aerial vehicle, used to pinpoint enemy targets and more recently to shoot at them, is a highly acclaimed veteran of three wars - Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan - as well as the ongoing wider war against terrorism. Yet if bureaucrats and the bean-counters at the government's General Accounting Office had their way, Predator would still be in the hangar: They continue to insist that the remarkably useful and inexpensive weapon doesn't yet meet the Defense Department's specs for deployment.

Ballistic missiles: The basic weapon of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War was deployed long before it had reached operational perfection. The Air Force deployed inferior liquid-fuel missiles before settling on solid-fuel designs. Meanwhile, in response to the threat posed by Soviet missiles to land bases, the Navy scrambled, within about five years, to develop and deploy a ballistic-missile sub. Everything about it was new: Nuclear-warhead technology, new ballistic missiles, and new nuclear propulsion. Ironically, the Navy learned later that the Polaris was deployed with warheads that probably would not have detonated if they had had to be used. The lack of certainty didn't matter, because the deployment sent the Soviets scrambling to expend their money and time on a counter to the sub.

U2: In the mid 1950s, a United States desperate to collect intelligence on the Soviet missile buildup fielded the U2 spy plane without waiting for its perfection. Just as the CIA helped to rush the armed Predator into operation, back then it rushed in the U2, successfully dispelling what were then paralyzing U.S. fears of a Soviet-dominated "missile gap."

In all these cases, the weapons continued to be tinkered with and improved after they were deployed. The practice of rushing promising technologies into real-world use exists outside defense as well. It's called "spiral development." Consider that software is rolled out as it's developed, and improved along the way. If that weren't the case, we'd all still be scratching on notepads waiting for the programmers at Microsoft to work out the final bugs in Windows '95.

Missile defenses are showing great promise. Interception of the missiles by kill vehicles has improved greatly. Radars for tracking the missiles are advancing by leaps and bounds. And the fact that the U.S. isn't hemmed in by the ABM treaty offers new possibilities for using systems based at sea and in space. At a minimum, any national or theater missile defense system that could be deployed in the coming years would be credible enough to complicate an adversary's strategic thinking severely, making him think twice about pinning all his hopes on being able to manipulate the U.S. with a missile-attack threat.

"Bake 'til golden brown" is for cookies. For missile defenses and other weapons systems with the potential to tip the regional strategic balance away from an enemy, "spiral development" is the best - and the only - way.

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