How to Defend America Against Missile Attack

How to Defend America Against Missile Attack


Morton Halperin
6:59 a.m.  Monday  7/8/96

The Cold War is over, but the arguments against constructing weapons to shoot down long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) remain essentially unchanged: too expensive to build, too risky to rely upon, and ultimately, counterproductive to U.S. security. In this latter context, three issues stand out: (1) rogue states; (2) U.S.-Russian arms control relations; and (3) nuclear proliferation.

I will address in my opening comments only what seems to be the current focus in the decades-long search for a rationale to deploy an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system, i.e., that a "rogue" state may acquire and then launch nuclear-armed ICBMs at U.S. cities.


In fact, it is not likely that any of the rogue states--Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya--will be able to deploy ICBMs in the foreseeable future.

But even if they were, there are two reasons why it is even less likely that their leaders will consider it in their national interest to pursue this option.

First, leaders of rogue states should have no doubt that the United States would respond with overwhelming force well in advance of any such threat to American lives, thereby both destroying their military potential and undermining their ability to govern.

Second, even if a rogue state leader did decide to develop the ability to jeopardize the lives of millions of U.S. civilians, he would not do so by deploying ICBMs. There are, unfortunately, many cheaper, quicker, and less risky means available. Biological weapons, for example, are much easier and less costly to produce and deliver, and their construction is simpler to hide. On this and other technical issues, I refer the reader to an excellent compilation called The Last 15 Minutes.

In fact, the ICBM threat is the easiest to counter. Building ICBMs is a visible and lengthy process; the program is vulnerable to destruction long before becoming operational. The U.S. should clearly state that we will not tolerate an ICBM deployment by a rogue state, and that in the event that the U.N. Security Council fails to take action, we would destroy the ICBMs long before they threatened our cities and bring down the leaders responsible for the deployment.

This is a far better way to protect our security than warning rogue leaders that if they fire missiles at the United States, we will shoot them--or at least some of them--down.

John Rhinelander
7:22 a.m.  Monday  7/8/96

First, Reduce the Threat

The United States has spent $99 billion since 1962 in a futile effort to build an effective ballistic missile defense. About $40 billion was wasted on the late, unlamented Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars, conceived by President Reagan in 1983.

Star Wars was a four-phase, largely space-based system, designed to counter Soviet missiles. Unfortunately, a leakproof ballistic missile defense is an impossible task. Star Wars could not defend against the present thousands of Russian missiles, would be incredibly costly, and counter-productive to U.S. net security interests.

The first line of U.S. defenses must remain diplomacy and arms control efforts to reduce the principal threats as quickly as possible. The strategic arms reductions treaties (START I and START II) promise to eliminate 70 percent of the formerly deployed Soviet strategic nuclear warheads by 2003. Other than four or so Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles, no other long-range ballistic missiles are expected to threaten the continental U.S. over the next 15 years.

Arms reduction efforts, coupled with cooperative efforts to secure and reduce Russian missile materials, would be frustrated ab initio by testing or deploying a Star Wars defense. The objective should be the earliest possible START III reductions to about 2000 U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons each, followed by a START IV that gets all five nuclear-weapon states (U.S., Russia, UK, France and China) to no more than a hundred or so nuclear weapons each, of all types and ranges. The sole role of the remaining nuclear weapons would be to deter their use by others. These reductions would be vastly more important to U.S. security than a leaky ballistic missile defense.

The second line of U.S. defenses must remain our conventional forces that deter, but can defeat if necessary, non-nuclear threats to the U.S., its allies and friends. The third, and last, line of defense could be ballistic missile defenses against short-range threats to U.S. troops abroad. But neither an improved Patriot, nor any other contemplated land-based or sea-based theatre missile defense, could counter chemical or biological weapons dispensed as submunitions from even short-range ballistic missiles.

The most ominous threat to the 50 states is not ballistic missiles, but terrorists utilizing a van, ship or civil aircraft. Only comprehensive arms control agreements that eliminate mass destruction weapons, while incorporating intrusive inspection regimes, offer a prospect of preventing terrorists using a nuclear device, or biological or chemical agents.

Walter Slocombe
9:13 a.m.  Monday  7/8/96

The U.S. needs a BMD program, and we have one. The administration's program meets the actual urgent problem--theater attacks on our troops and their bases by rogue states. It will, if such nations threaten missile attacks on our homeland, also give the U.S. an effective defense. (The only thing proposed seriously is defending against these relatively small threats; about 10 years of trying under Star Wars made clear that defense against the thousands of missile warheads a superpower could use is simply not practical.)

Our program is a big one--$3.4B to be spent this year and $14.1B over the next five years. Most will rightly go to defenses against the here and now threat--like Saddam Hussein's SCUDs and their descendants--against our troops, their support, and our allies' cities. We will steadily increase our ability to deal with this threat, developing and deploying new and improved TMD systems.

Right now, rogue states like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea do not have missiles able to reach U.S. territory. It is likely to be many years before they do, but we are not relying on that. Instead, our program will position the U.S. to respond quickly should homeland missile threats develop faster than we expect. Specifically, our program will allow the U.S. to have a defense of our homeland by 2003--as soon as such a defense is technically feasible, and the same date as in the Republican bills.

The difference is this: The Republican bills would commit the U.S. now to deploy in 2003. Our program would develop the system first and deploy only if a threat was visible on the horizon and, if not, to continue to improve the technology, insuring the best possible assessment before committing the billions of dollars any deployed system will cost. It means the system we do field will use the best technology and be matched to the threat it must meet, not risk a defense that would be obsolete by the time it was fielded. Committing to a national missile defense system before it is needed would also waste resources that our military requires for modernization and readiness.

Requiring our missile defense to have priorities and avoid premature commitments is not the product of fixation on arms control. If we need a defense that requires modifying the ABM Treaty, we will modify it. But a rigid commitment now to deployment would needlessly undermine the whole nuclear arms control system. Repudiating arms control would senselessly jeopardize elimination of thousands of Russian nuclear warheads under the START I and II treaties--many more than any defense could ever intercept.

If politics and ideology are put aside, it is clear that our current program provides the best defense against the missile threats our country faces today and may face in the future.

Charles Krauthammer
2:09 p.m.  Monday  7/8/96

During the Gulf War, a conflict that demonstrated overwhelming American military superiority, the United States suffered its single worst loss--28 dead, 98 wounded--as a result of one very dumb Scud missile. Israel, the most militarily and technologically advanced country in the region, was terrorized by a series of equally dumb Scuds.

There is nothing hypothetical about ballistic missile warfare. It is already here. And it is going to get worse. The missiles will become more accurate. They will acquire longer range. (North Korea is already working on the Taepo Dong 2 missile with a range of more than 3000 kilometers, perhaps much more.) And the warheads will become exponentially more deadly as conventional explosives give way to chemical, biological and nuclear payloads.

That we know. We also know that the United States, as the leading global power with far-flung interests, allies, bases, and, most important, enemies throughout the world, will again be the target of such missiles. And we know, too, that the United States, with its unmatched information and military technology, with its already demonstrated ability to shoot a bullet with a bullet, is the one country on the globe in a position to deploy defenses to defeat the ballistic missile.

What are we waiting for? Has there ever been a more compelling case--a case of need and opportunity--for a weapon system than for missile defenses? And yet with every Congressional session, with every defense department appropriation, we hear the mindless repetition of the mantra that missile defenses are a weapon system in search of a rationale.

The opposition to ballistic missiles defenses is now acquiring quasi-religious dimensions. The argument is an amalgam of superstition--not wanting to cross some metaphysical divide between offense and defense; partisanship--not wanting to vindicate a vision originally advanced by Ronald Reagan; legalism--a slavish adherence to an ABM treaty made with a country that no longer exists for a rationale that no longer exists (to prevent the U.S.-Soviet offensive-defensive arms race); and, finally, inertia and complacency--tootling along with endless research but never deployment under the assumption that we can always get serious when the threat becomes imminent.

When the threat does becomes imminent, when the silos are opened, would it not be better to have a defense in place?

Herb Stein
9:26 p.m.  Monday  7/8/96

An unforeseen delay in his travel plans has prevented Richard Perle from joining this discussion up to this point. Without waiting for him, I would like to raise an economist's kind of question. We have here a cost-benefit problem. The discussion so far has concentrated on the evaluation of the benefits to the United States of the development and deployment of a defense against missiles. Undoubtedly there will be more to be said about that. But what the costs to the United States would be has not been discussed. I suppose that even the opponents of more development and deployment would agree that unless the threat was absolutely zero we should do it if the cost was zero. Only one kind of cost has been mentioned so far in this discussion. That is the possible reaction of the Russians. I think it would be useful to have a further explanation of the reasons to think that the Russian reaction would be dangerous to us. The other cost, which has not been mentioned so far, is the cost in resources of investing more in anti-missile defense. I have the impression, which I would like one of the panelists to check, that we are talking of something like an expenditure of $10 billion a year--certainly not more than $20 billion. In an economy with a GDP of $7500 billion that is about one-and-one-half to three-tenths of 1 percent of the total. So, one question is whether the risk is so small that it is not worth spending so small a fraction of our national output to defend against it. I am not suggesting that the answer is negative. I am just suggesting that the question helps this economist at least to put the issue in perspective.