FIFTY Nobel laureates have joined the chorus of critics calling upon President Bill Clinton to scrap plans for the proposed $60 billion National Missile Defense system.
Mr. Clinton should heed this unusual warning from this group of informed and distinguished scientists, who include Hans A. Bethe, chief architect of the atomic bomb as well as about half of all living American Nobel laureates in science. Labeling the plan wasteful and dangerous, their letter is well-timed. Late tonight, the Pentagon will spend $100 million on a test that is itself highly questionable.
The first two tests of the proposed system had disappointing results. Now it appears this third test, which may be the basis of Mr. Clinton recommending the initial building phase, is stacked for success. Theodore A. Postol, a professor of science and national security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former science adviser to the chief of naval operations on ballistic missile technologies, has unsuccessfully urged the White House to investigate an alleged cover-up of what he describes as a major flaw. Mr. Postol contends that data from the first test flight in 1997 prove that the ground-based interceptor couldn't tell an incoming weapon from a decoy.
Although a communications system has been added, most of the decoys used in earlier failed tests have been removed, leaving a single, 6-foot balloon that is one of the easiest decoys to distinguish from the warhead. This, Mr. Postol says, is the equivalent of "rolling a pair of dice and throwing away all outcomes that did not give snake eyes."
Even the Pentagon admits that the tests, which involve one missile, one interceptor and one communications system, do not simulate actual attacks that would likely involve many incoming warheads, each with multiple decoys, as well as a worldwide network of satellites and computers.
Reasons to reject the system go beyond the most fundamental one of whether it will work or not. Mr. Clinton's cadre of experts is far from united on the question of whether countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq pose enough of a nuclear threat to warrant such a defense. And the timing of Mr. Clinton's decision -- sometime this fall -- is too easily interpreted as politically motivated to portray Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore as a hard-liner on defense.
The most troubling danger is that the system will cause China to dramatically increase its small nuclear arsenal, setting off an arms race with nearby India and Pakistan. Fearing just such an unpredictable development, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder also have asked Mr. Clinton to delay his decision.
The president should not commit tens of billions of dollars unless there is a greater consensus that the missile defense system will work, is needed and will decrease, not increase, chances of nuclear destruction. When 50 Nobel laureates talk, we all should listen.
© 2000 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, postnet.com