How to Defend America Against Missile Attack

How to Defend America Against Missile Attack

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Walter Slocombe
6:36 p.m.  Tuesday  7/9/96

Krauthammer argues the administration has too little sense of urgency about the missile defense problem, Rhinelander and Halperin that we have too much. Perle has not weighed in yet.

The answer to Krauthammer's query--what are we waiting for?--is, of course, that we are not waiting. The policy of inaction advocated by Halperin and Rhinelander is not the policy of this government. None of Krauthammer's demons--"superstition, partisanship, legalism, inertia or complacency"--has prevented us from having both a deployment program for theater defenses and a robust development program for national defenses.

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The issue, in fact, is not paralysis, but priorities. We need to match the evolution of our defenses to the evolution of the ballistic missile threats. The priority in the Defense Department program is the real current threat--to get better defenses deployed against the ballistic missile threats that are here and now, those with ranges up to about 1,000 kilometers. Those are the threats that our highest priority systems--upgraded Patriot PAC-3s and Navy Area Defense System, both lower-tier systems for deployment in 1999 and 2000, respectively--will be most effective against. Next, we're likely to see rogue nations--North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria--attempt to get missiles with ranges from about 1,000 to and 3,500 kilometers (the kind of threat our THAAD and Navy Theater Wide System are designed to counter). These systems will be vastly improved over the Gulf War Patriots and will be capable of protecting areas many times larger.

We may eventually see these rogue nations start to acquire longer-range missiles that could threaten the United States. Although our intelligence suggests such a threat is years away, we have a program to meet it. There will be a full National Missile Defense system test in 1999, and, if the threat situation then warrants, we could deploy by 2003. Thus, we have a development program that--far from being "endless research"--has a specific target of giving us a deployable national defense system in six years (which is generally agreed to be the minimum time needed to develop and deploy a workable system against rogue-state threats).

In fact, the difference between the administration's national defense program and that advocated by Congressional Republicans is not urgency--both set a six-year target for deployment. The key difference--apart from log-rolling rhetoric about including various expensive and dubiously effective Star Wars relics in the GOP plan--is a purported Republican commitment to deployment come what may. To be fair, even that difference is mostly rhetoric. Surely the Republican defense advocates do not really mean that they would blindly ignore either intelligence about the threat or the state of technology when they really had a system ready to deploy.

To make clear why an instant commitment to deploy a national defense is a mistake, it's worth a brief look at the facts. North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran today have shorter range missiles that pose a potential threat to our deployed forces and our allies, and Iraq is restrained only by intrusive international inspections from re-acquiring that capability. That threat demands an immediate response and it is getting it.

The situation regarding threats to the U.S. homeland is quite different. Currently only Russia and China have missiles able to reach U.S. territory--and each has had them for a generation or more. For these, diplomacy and deterrence must be our protection now, as in the far more dangerous past. Successful diplomacy has resulted in agreement for the removal or elimination of the ICBM launchers left behind in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan when the USSR disintegrated. And arms control agreements also have meant dramatic reductions in the scale of the Russian threat. Since 1990, more than 4,000 strategic warheads from the old Soviet arsenal have been deactivated, and thousands more will be if START II comes into effect. Seeking to preserve these accomplishments of arms control as we build our ballistic missile defense is not "slavish adherence" to outdated dogma, but simple self-interest, for these reductions in the Russian threat far exceed the numbers of warheads any practical system could defeat.

For the rogue states, ICBMs are still a long way off. A North Korean missile in development, the Taepo Dong 2, could conceivably have sufficient range to strike portions of Alaska or the far-western Hawaiian Islands, but the likelihood of it being operational within five years is very low. It has not yet been tested, and years of testing are needed for a workable system. A missile threat to the rest of the country from the rogue states is still wholly hypothetical. In sum, none of these countries now poses a ballistic missile threat to the 50 states, and in all probability none will for many years.

Our NMD program is designed to hedge against that prediction being too optimistic by giving us an option to deploy as soon as technically feasible. But if in the event the rogue-state ICBM threat does not develop more quickly than we expect, it makes sense to keep the program as a hedge, continuing technological development rather than locking onto a particular program before we know the threat it must meet and foregoing the opportunity to stay ahead of the threat technology.

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