On March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan surprised the nation and the
world by announcing an ambitious research program designed to render
nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." Reagan acknowledged that this
"formidable technical task...may not be accomplished before the end of
The end of the 20th century has come and gone, but Reagan's
dream of a shield against nuclear weapons lives on. In the eighteen
years since, the Pentagon has spent more than $70 billion on missile
defense programs without producing a workable system.
The original mission has been whittled down from the ambitious
goal of defending the U.S. against the threat posed by thousands of
Soviet warheads to the more modest objective of protecting the U.S. from
a handful of warheads from North Korea or Iraq. But under George W.
Bush, Reagan's dream may get a second chance. Bush has promised to
deploy a system capable of defending the entire United States from
ballistic missile attack, as well as "our friends and allies and
deployed forces overseas."
How is President Bush going to accomplish this? No one is
saying, at least not yet. President Bush has talked about developing a
layered missile defense system with interceptors on land, at sea, on
airplanes, and in outer space, but a detailed explanation of the
administration's plans won't be available until Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld completes his military posture review later this year.
However, the same kinds of technical problems, cost overruns, and
diplomatic obstacles that brought Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative
to a halt in the 1980s are likely to derail Bush's equally expansive
missile defense vision.
A report released last month by the Pentagon's Office of
Independent Testing and Evaluations outlined the daunting challenges
facing U.S. missile defense programs. In addition to the land-based
National Missile Defense (NMD) system that Bush inherited from the
Clinton administration, other programs likely to garner more attention
in his administration are the Navy Theater Wide (NTW) system and the
Space Based Laser (SBL) program.
For the National Missile Defense system, which failed two out of its'
three intercept tests, the report warns that the system is far from
ready to intercept the kinds of missiles "currently deployed by the
established nuclear powers" - missiles that employ countermeasures and
decoys. The report warns that the Navy Theater Wide system, a sea-based
system being touted by many proponents as a near-term, "quick and easy"
alternative to the NMD system, is not currently a viable option. And the
highly touted Space Based Laser is little more than a concept at this
The costs of deploying a missile defense system now will range anywhere
from the General Accounting Office's $60 billion estimate for the
limited NMD system currently being tested, to $240 billion or more for
the multi-layered approach that President Bush seems to support.
Unfortunately, by seeking only military/technical solutions to
the missile threat, President Bush is underestimating the consequences
for international security of deploying an ambitious NMD system. As the
U.S. government's top intelligence analyst on missile proliferation
suggested last summer, deployment of an NMD system would set off "an
unsettling series of political and military ripple effects . . . that
would include a sharp buildup of strategic and medium-range nuclear
missiles by China, India, and Pakistan and the further spread of
military technology in the Middle East." In essence, an NMD deployment
could create the very threats it is supposed to counter.
But there are other ways of dealing with the threat; ways that
even Ronald Reagan eventually acknowledged were more effective in
protecting us from nuclear weapons. After all, it was Reagan who agreed
to eliminate intermediate range nuclear weapons from Europe. He also
set the stage for the first major reductions in nuclear weapons under
the START I Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Instead of pinning all of his hopes on a costly and unproven
missile defense program, President Bush should go on the diplomatic
offensive to reduce nuclear dangers now. He should start by taking up
Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to reduce U.S. and Russian
strategic nuclear warheads to 1,000 or less per side. He should also
take the advice of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Korean President
Kim Dae Jung by picking up where the Clinton administration left off in
the U.S.-North Korean talks on ending Pyonyang's nuclear weapons and
ballistic missile programs.
Star Wars wasn't the right response during the Cold War, it
seems clear that missile defense is not the appropriate response today
either. The sooner President Bush realizes this, the sooner he can
proceed with a more practical plan for defending us from post-Cold War
Michelle Ciarrocca and William D. Hartung are Senior Research Associate
and President's Fellow, respectively, at the World Policy Institute in
New York. They are co-authors of "Tangled Web: The Marketing of Missile