Published on Monday, May 8, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Experts: Clinton's 'Star Wars' Will Make US More, Not Less, Vulnerable To Nuclear Attack
by Tyler Marshall
WASHINGTON - A growing number of arms control and national security specialists
are concerned that the unilateral deployment of a national missile
defense system would carry political and security costs so great that
they would leave the United States more rather than less vulnerable to
Unless accompanied by a concerted global diplomatic offensive and the successful renegotiation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, these experts fear, deployment would seriously damage relations with Moscow and Beijing and strain ties with America's European allies.
Some arms control specialists contend that recently disclosed details of the Clinton administration's efforts to renegotiate the ABM Treaty indicate that, even if Washington reaches agreement with Moscow, America's security still could be sharply diminished.
Those details, published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, reveal that the United States has encouraged Russia to keep its entire strategic nuclear force of about 3,000 missiles on hair-trigger alert as a way to reduce Moscow's anxiety about a U.S. missile defense system. The U.S. system, however, would be designed to counter no more than a small fraction of Russia's arsenal.
"Deployment will make the country less secure, not more secure," said Joseph Cirincioni, a respected arms control specialist with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The [political and security] costs of deploying a missile defense system unilaterally are extremely heavy and have to be paid for upfront, while the possible military benefits require the better part of a decade to appear. It's like a balloon mortgage. The big payment occurs immediately when you worsen relationships and existing security arrangements."
For politicians of both parties--eager to demonstrate their determination to defend America against new threats--it hardly seems to matter that scientists and arms control specialists remain deeply divided on the fundamental question of whether such a system might actually work.
Some leading scientists are convinced that the administration's envisioned first-phase system, which would consist of as many as 100 land-based missile interceptors deployed in Alaska, cannot work.
"The proposed . . . system will not work against the threats it is designed to face," said Cornell University physicist Kurt Gottfried, who also heads the Union of Concerned Scientists, an activist group whose causes include nuclear nonproliferation.
An alternative, Republican-backed concept that would rely on high-speed interceptors carried aboard naval ships is still years away from being ready for deployment, many scientists say.
Other specialists, particularly those allied with the Republican right, express confidence in the viability of missile defense technology. They insist that the missile threat to America's homeland is real and consider delayed development nothing short of criminal negligence.
Clinton, Congress at Odds on Deployment
"The technology is ready," said Baker Spring, a research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a crucible of conservative Republican ideas. "If critics are saying we have to have a perfect defense or otherwise it's not worth doing, then it will never be deployed. If we're looking for the point where you can say, 'Yes, we can do it,' well, we've passed that point."
The next test of the administration's preferred system, which would intercept incoming missiles in mid-flight, is scheduled for late next month. Two such tests have already been conducted; only one succeeded.
A second success would place added pressure on President Clinton to approve deployment. He is committed to making a decision sometime in the fall.
Congressional Republicans, fearing that Clinton might be too accommodating with the Russians and negotiate ABM treaty changes that would limit future deployments, have vowed to reject any compromise he might strike with Moscow during his final months in office. For them, the choice is clear: Either radically alter the ABM treaty if Moscow agrees to do so or be prepared to scrap it altogether if Russia balks, and push forward with as robust a system as America needs.
At a recent lunch with a group of reporters in Washington, Condoleezza Rice, senior foreign policy advisor to presumptive Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, delivered what amounted to a simple response to the global hand wringing over U.S. intentions: Get over it.
"It's a new world," she said. "The ABM treaty is an artifact of 1972. It's getting time to think differently about this."
She said that Clinton is responsible for much of the international resistance to missile defense development because the administration has failed to consult properly with allies and has confused Russia and China with inconsistent, sometimes conflicting messages. Rice said that a Bush administration would undertake a strong diplomatic effort to build greater understanding for missile defense but made it clear that no amount of resistance would deter its eventual deployment.
Concerns that a national missile defense system actually could reduce the nation's overall security are based largely on possible countermeasures that might be taken by other major powers.
At risk with Russia, those who express these concerns say, is not just the prospect of thousands of missiles on high alert but also the continuation of large and successful joint U.S.-Russia programs to contain nuclear proliferation.
Pact With Russia Worries U.S. Allies
One such program pays for efforts to properly store, guard and eventually destroy Russian stockpiles of weapon-grade nuclear material left over from the Cold War--enough to build about 40,000 new weapons. Another program subsidizes jobs for Russian nuclear scientists so they will not sell their talents to such countries as Iran or Iraq.
Analysts see deployment triggering an equally unsettling set of problems with China, which is arguably more affected by a limited missile defense than Russia because it has so few long-range missiles of its own. They say that Beijing probably would feel compelled to quickly expand its arsenal of about 20 long-range missiles and possibly upgrade them with multiple warheads.
They point to the likelihood that Moscow and Beijing would develop relatively cheap countermeasures, such as decoys, that they could then sell to the very countries America is most worried about, such as Iraq or North Korea.
There is also concern among America's allies, already shaken by the narrow domestic considerations that dominated the U.S. Senate last October when the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was voted down. For them, Clinton's missile defense initiative, together with strident rhetoric from congressional Republicans calling for immediate abrogation of the ABM treaty, constitute the latest example of what they see as a tendency to dismiss the interests of loyal friends and the broader global community without proper consultation.
But the real worry among Europeans is that an America protected by a missile defense system would effectively be the first step in the gradual uncoupling of their half-century transatlantic alliance with the United States.
"If the decision [on deployment] is taken without agreement with Russia and without help from European leaders, it will be very badly taken," Javier Solana, the European Union's de facto foreign minister, told a group of American reporters here last week.
In the 17 years since President Reagan first stunned the country with his famous "Star Wars" vision, support for deployment of a national missile defense system has spread from the hard Cold War fringes of the Republican right to the political mainstream.
In the intervening years, it has become an idea embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike. Last year, Congress passed legislation declaring missile defense deployment a national goal. And as the presidential campaign gathers steam, one of the few national security debates to emerge so far is not if, but how a protective umbrella can be developed to shield the United States against a limited nuclear missile attack by a small, fringe state such as North Korea.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times