How to Defend America Against Missile Attack

How to Defend America Against Missile Attack

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Charles Krauthammer
7:25 a.m.  Wednesday  7/10/96

John Rhinelander's faith in arms control as the solution to our vulnerability to ballistic missiles is touching. It is also the most remarkable attempt at misdirection since Houdini. Arms control may or may not have its merits, but it is simply irrelevant to the question of ballistic missile attack from rogue states. Rhinelander doesn't even bother to pretend that the rogues would participate in the diplomacy of arms control (which he restricts to the five nuclear weapons states). And even if the likes of Iraq and North Korea did participate in such diplomacy, only a fool would take them at their word.

Rhinelander's faith in "intrusive inspection regimes" as an adjunct to "comprehensive arms control agreements" is equally touching. Iraq was under full IAEA inspection and in full compliance before the Gulf War. Yet, we now know that Iraq was cheating on a massive scale and was just months away from producing a nuclear weapon when the Gulf War broke out.

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After the Gulf War, Iraq has been subject to the most intrusive inspection regime in human history. And Rolf Ekeus, chairman of the U.N. inspection team, tells us that the Iraqis are nonetheless still hiding proscribed weapons, perhaps a dozen or more ballistic missiles with warheads capable of carrying chemical or biological weapons. So much for "intrusive inspection."

Mort Halperin is too realistic to pretend that inspection and arms control will save us from ballistic missile attack. His alternative to missile defenses, unlike Rhinelander's, is not touching. It is merely astonishing: preemptive war.

He writes: "The U.S. should clearly state that we will not tolerate an ICBM deployment by a rogue state, and in the event that the U.N. Security Council fails to take action, would destroy the ICBMs long before they threatened our cities and bring down the leaders responsible for the deployment."

Let me get this straight: Instead of building a missile defense that would either render obsolete a rogue state's missiles or actually deter the rogue state from building the missile in the first place (because it would be useless), Halperin proposes to build nothing, leave ourselves defenseless, and instead preemptively go to war with every state that henceforth builds an ICBM. We start, I suppose, with North Korea.

You be the judge which is the more prudent way to defend the United States.

Morton Halperin
11:57 a.m.  Wednesday  7/10/96


Because this topic evokes such passion, I believe that we will serve the readers best if we stick to the facts rather than to labels and address each subject one at a time. We can then see what the real differences are.

Walter Slocombe's charge that John Rhinelander and I support a "policy of inaction" is no more accurate or helpful than Charles Krauthammer's set of labels, which serves as a substitute for analysis.

Much of Krauthammer's first contribution seems to deal with the question of theatre defenses of American forces abroad and of our allies. There is no dispute about this issue, and we should be able to take it off the table.

All of us agree that the United States should deploy effective theatre defenses against ballistic missiles as quickly as possible, and should devote significant resources to developing more effective systems to match the emerging threats. The issue is what to do about missile defenses of the United States.

I would welcome responses to my discussion of the rogue state problem.

Herb Stein
12:21 p.m.  Wednesday  7/10/96


The discussion of anti-missile defense seems to rely a good deal on intelligence estimates. I am struck by reading this on the same day that Department of Defense officials were testifying about the bombing in Saudi Arabia. Of course, intelligence estimates are estimates, subject to error. I have just been reading the wartime papers of Winston Churchill, certainly a great man, and seeing how wrong he and his intelligence experts were in appraising the possibility of Germans overrunning French defenses. There are lots of other cases. Pearl Harbor. The barefoot peasants of Vietnam vs. the American military machine. Iraq's weapons that we knew nothing about.

As I look back at my own experience with economic policy I think we did not take adequate account of the possibility that our estimates might be wrong.

Are we in danger of making a similar mistake about defense?

Morton Halperin
12:25 p.m.  Wednesday  7/10/96


Herb Stein asks for a further explanation of why the Russian reaction to an ABM defense of the United States would be harmful to American interests.

The only nation that has the capacity to destroy the United States with ballistic missiles is Russia. Therefore, our most urgent goal should be to seek to reduce the size of the Russian ICBM force, to get it off alert, and to separate missiles from their warheads.

These steps would reduce the risk of an accidental, inadvertent, or unauthorized firing of Russian missiles.

If we maintain the ABM Treaty and agree to significant reductions in our ICBM force, we have a good chance of getting the Russians to move in this direction. If we renounce the ABM Treaty and deploy an area defense of the United States, these chances are greatly reduced.

This is so because the Russian national security establishment fears that the United States will develop the capability to threaten Russia with a first nuclear strike against which they could not effectively retaliate. Once we deploy an ABM system, the Russians cannot be sure that we would not quickly expand it to have a capacity to shoot down all of the ICBMs they could fire after a surprise American first strike.

Their prudent response to this fear will be to refuse to ratify START II and to maintain their force on a hair-trigger alert. The danger that ICBMs will destroy American cities will go up and not down, and this is certainly harmful to U.S. interests.

Herb Stein asks what he terms an "economist's kind of question." Since the cost of deploying an ABM system is small compared to our total GDP and the value is not zero, why not deploy?

Let me try an analogy.

Suppose you live in a house in which the front and back doors cannot be locked and the locks on your windows are easily broken. I come to you and say I have a good--although expensive--lock for your attic window. Why not buy it? It is cheap relatively to your income and, who knows, some fool might ignore the open doors and the windows and try to get in through the attic. You would send me on my way and think about how to lock the doors and windows.

As I argued in my first piece, that is exactly the situation.

To return to the real world, whatever funds we decide to spend to protect American forces and cities should be focused on the real threats. We should:

  • Deploy a theatre defense and develop more effective defenses;
  • improve our ability to detect efforts to smuggle fissionable material into the United States;
  • work diplomatically to reduce the threat from rogue states and strengthen international conventions against biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and;
  • improve the capacity of federal and local law enforcement agencies to deal with threats of biological and chemical attacks on our cities.

This is a sensible cost-benefit approach to protecting American lives.

John Rhinelander
2:25 p.m.  Wednesday  7/10/96


Slocombe ably describes the administration's ballistic missile defense posture, hype and all. The program has evolved considerably over the past year and now, driven largely by the uniform military, has better focus and lower cost. But it still has too much partisan political posturing, allows too much inter-service jockeying, and is much too heavy in pork-barrel politics.

The present emphasis of the administration's theatre missile defense (TMD) program is correctly focused on the only near-term threat missiles with ranges of 1000 kilometers or less. The best, earliest and most cost-effective approach is an improved Patriot, or PAC-3. I support this, as my initial comment indicates, but do not believe it is fool proof as Slocombe implies. No missile defense can be.

The rhetoric of Slocombe's position is as much directed against my fellow Republicans' irresponsible positions as it is defense against possible military adversaries. It will probably be more successful against the former as the administration creates the image of a middle ground and runs for cover in it with particular attention to its right flank than against the latter. Point of fact none of the land-based or sea-based TMD's the U.S. is pursuing will be effective if submunitions are dispensed early in flight by ballistic missiles, a technology the U.S. first deployed in the 1950s. Unfortunately, if ballistic missiles are ever used to dispense chemical or biological weapons, this is the most effective way it could be done.

The administration still let's each of the three military services run loose with their own pet TMD programs. The Navy's is the least excusable, with defensive missiles crammed on surface ships themselves vulnerable to cruise missiles. Years ago, when asked where the future Navy should be, a former secretary of the Navy said, "underwater." In sum, the present inter-service rivalry is duplicative and wasteful.

Finally, the multiplicity of BMD programs near-term, medium-term and long-term all add up to jobs, jobs, jobs in important states during a presidential election year. La plus ca change, as the French say.

John Rhinelander
2:59 p.m.  Wednesday  7/10/96


Krauthammer's posture represents many threads, one of which is that technology is the best (and perhaps only) answer to our missile vulnerability dilemma.

Missile defense technology has not, is not, and almost surely will not in the future, be our salvation. That is not because U.S. technology isn't good. It's the best in the world, both offensive weapons and defensive weapons. The problem is that, in the case of missiles, offense dominates. In fact, a poor offense can beat a good defense. This is true in other areas, too, such as attack submarines versus anti-submarine systems. The U.S. is the best at both, but the U.S. offensive boats routinely beat the defense in naval exercises.

I served in the late '50s in the U.S. Army with the first U.S. missile defense program, the NIKE anti-aircraft system. The U.S. then had defensive missiles, armed with both higher explosive and nuclear warheads, coast to coast for about a decade. They were abandoned as not capable of intercepting the air threat and no use whatsoever against offensive ballistic missiles.

In the '60s the Johnson Administration explored, and in the '70s the Nixon and Ford administrations finally deployed, the first U.S. anti-ballistic missile system at Grand Forks, North Dakota. This was operational for six months, then shut down as cost ineffective.

In the '80s President Reagan launched his Star Wars dream to defend all America against the Evil Empire's ballistic missile threat. The effort hardly got from paper to hardware. The overwhelming technical consensus is that the best defense in the world could not do that task.

Finally, the Gulf War briefly puffed up all the technologists' dreams. One facet was the Patriot defense system that shot down incoming missiles left and right on CNN for all of us to see. But Patriot did not do so, as the Israeli military knew at the time. That generation Patriot did calm the Israeli public and helped keep Israel out of the war, but current analysis suggests that only one incoming SCUD was directly destroyed by a Patriot missile.

A leaky defense has not been and is not the answer to the threat of ballistic missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction. The first response must be to reduce, and preferably eliminate, the threat before used. That is called arms control. More on that in my next comment for tomorrow morning.

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