How to Defend America Against Missile Attack

How to Defend America Against Missile Attack

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Richard Perle
7:04 a.m.  Thursday  7/11/96

I'm sorry to be joining the Slate magazine discussion when it is already well underway. Of course, the debate about the wisdom and efficacy of ballistic missile defenses was raging long before Microsoft. It was in full fury when I came to Washington to help Democratic Sen. Scoop Jackson overcome his own party's opposition and get the "Safeguard" ballistic missile defense system through the Senate--by one vote--in the fall of 1969.

It's amazing that the party that almost killed Safeguard a quarter of a century ago and then resisted Ronald Reagan's SDI a decade ago continues to oppose a national ballistic missile defense even now. In 1969 the Democrats argued that the deployment of an ABM system would fuel an arms race and kill arms control. In fact it produced the ABM treaty in 1972--to which John Rhinelander remains devoted with undiminished passion. Now the Democrats argue, like Halperin, that the threat is insufficiently imminent to justify moving out smartly to construct a national defense, or that there are other beastly things that the rogues who manage rogue states might do--like release bacteria in New York--or, as in the case of consensus-builder Walt Slocombe, that the defense-minded New Democrat Clinton administration is already working as fast as prudence allows to prepare for the deployment of a national defense by 2003. (I happen to agree with Slocombe that "an instant commitment to deploy a national defense is a mistake." But it would be an even bigger mistake to find ourselves without one when we need it: and no one can say when that might be.) And there is nothing "instant" (John Rhinelander refers to $99 billion spent over 34 years) about a decision now to proceed with determination toward a limited national defense.

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Mort Halperin's analysis of the Russian attitude toward a U.S. ABM system could have been written in the 1970s. Hey Mort, the world has changed. The Cold War is over. The only Russians who believe that the U.S. might attack them with nuclear weapons and count on an ABM system to defeat their retaliatory strike are John Rhinelander's pals from the days of the ABM treaty negotiation--Mort refers to them as the "Russian national security establishment"--and they, as you might imagine, now cling desperately to their jobs and pensions by ignoring the end of the Cold War. The idea that Mr. Yeltsin would pour billions he doesn't have into keeping aging ICBMs that he would otherwise dismantle under the START treaty just because the U.S. deployed a modest defense against small numbers of relatively unsophisticated missiles is ludicrous. At the very least it would be a surprising show of ingratitude to the U.S. administration that worked so hard to get him re-elected.

What I like best about the discussion so far is Walt's me-tooism. Sure we need a defense of our homeland. "Our program will allow us to have [it] by 2003 ... the same date as in the Republican bills." The administration's tactic of embracing every Republican idea for which pollster Greenberg identifies a following has finally made it to the Pentagon.

Eat your heart out, Halperin and Rhinelander. The debate is over. All we have left to argue about is timing, technology and, if we mean it, when and how to jettison the ABM treaty. Walt wants to wait. Some of us think he wants to wait forever, but he says he'll be ready by 2003 and that's good enough for me. As to how we get out of the ABM treaty, which prohibits any serious national ballistic missile defense, my preference would be to say to the Russians that we'll do it cooperatively if we can, but by exercising our right to withdraw on six months' notice if necessary. They'll go along. Promise.

In the meantime, let's not screw up our program to get a defense against theater missiles--which everyone in this discussion agrees is necessary and even urgent--by making that program conform to some debilitating notion of what the ABM treaty allows. The ABM treaty imposes no--repeat, no--limits on theater missiles. Yet this administration is busy negotiating technical limits on theater defenses with the remnant of Mort's "Russian national security establishment." The result, if they succeed, will be to render the theater defenses the administration advocates in place of a national defense both costly and ineffective. Some less trusting souls think that's deliberate. I hope they're wrong.

Herb Stein
7:34 a.m.  Thursday  7/11/96


The panelists seem to be agreed on the need for theater defense against missiles. I would like to ask a factual question in that connection. I have been told that the great threat is, or will be, from missiles that, after reaching a certain altitude, launch a large number of small vehicles. Perhaps that is what one of the panelists referred to as "sub-munitions." These small vehicles would carry biological, chemical or, perhaps, nuclear agents. They would be hard to intercept because there would be so many of them. Defense would have to intercept the missile before it launched these small things. That would require instantaneous response, to catch the vehicle in its boost phase, and that would require a defense constantly present in space.

Is this description of the threat realistic, and, if it is, do present plans for theater defense include plans for defense against it?

Morton Halperin
11:53 a.m.  Thursday   7/11/96


Careful readers will note that my opening statement was described by Walt Slocombe as a "policy of inaction," and by Charles Krauthammer as preemptive war. It is neither.

Krauthammer's faith in technology is naive; an ABM system would not render a rogue state's missiles "obsolete" or "useless." No one could be sure that the new system would work as planned the first time it was attacked (few systems do, as we all learn on the Internet); nor could we be sure that the defense would cover the entire country, or would effectively protect U.S. citizens from any biological weapons atop the ICBMs or from an explosion at sea.

What I propose is that we deter the building of ICBMs with the credible threat that we will launch not a preemptive war, but--assuming diplomatic efforts failed--a limited strike to destroy ICBM silos long before they were finished. The U.S. and Israeli limited strikes on Libya or Iraq were not perceived as preemptive war, and neither would an attack on silos.

Moreover, Krauthammer ignores the central point that a rogue state wanting to threaten to kill millions of Americans would most likely choose the cheaper and more easily hidden option of biological weapons. That is the threat we should be trying to figure out how to defend against.

Krauthammer's reference to North Korea is curious. Many Americans were ready to go to war to try to destroy the alleged stock of North Korean bombs. This would have been much harder than destroying ICBM silos. Nonetheless, the threat helped to persuade the North Koreans to bring a halt to their nuclear program. Certainly, the threat to destroy any ICBM they might try to build would be much more credible and would deter any such foolhardy action.

Here are the choices:

1) Deterring rogue states from deploying ICBMs with the credible threat to destroy the missiles before they are operational.

2) Attempting to deter rogue states with the uncertain warning that we would seek to destroy all the missiles they might fire at us. I am content to let the readers judge which is the more prudent way to defend the United States, and if my option is indeed a policy of inaction.

Herb Stein
11:56 a.m.  Thursday  67/11/96


Two points of clarification:

When Perle says "The debate is over" and he doesn't favor an instant decision to deploy by 2003, does he mean that he agrees with the administration's planned pace of development of SDI, except for theater defense?

Does anyone have any direct evidence of how the Russian government would react to any one of a variety of U.S. policies on missile defense? (I suppose someone in Moscow is reading "Slate" on the Internet and they could reply by e-mail.)

Morton Halperin
1:11 p.m.  Thursday  7/11/96


I am as amazed that Richard Perle is still searching for a rationale for an ABM system as he is that I still oppose deploying one. He writes that we must not delay developing an ABM system until we find we need one, and no one can say when that might be. However, he does not say why we might need one.

If the Russians are as benign and cooperative as Perle indicates, then surely the U.S. does not need an ABM system against them. China has a very small number of missiles that can reach the United States, and has had them for some time. So if the deployment was intended to defend the U.S. against Chinese missiles, we would have needed an ABM program a long time ago.

Thus, Perle must have in mind rogue states as he addresses a future need for an ABM program. If so, I would ask him to read my first submission and tell me where it goes wrong. The United States never will need an ABM system against rogue states if we determine not to let them deploy ICBMs.

As far as the Russians go, Perle is talking to different Russians than those who speak for the government if he believes that Russia will continue on the path of nuclear reductions despite a U.S. renunciation of the ABM Treaty. The Russians would have no way of knowing that we intend to stop with a very small system, and, of course, many people in the U.S. would not want to stop. If we insist on ending the ABM treaty, the Russians will cling stubbornly to their current level of weapons and will refuse to ratify START II or take their missiles off alert. Perle may think that the Russians are being ungrateful, but they have given every sign of continuing to worry, as our military does, about a crisis in which nuclear threats are once again made. In response to Herb Stein's question, this is certainly what the Russian government says, and it is consistent with its current and past behavior.

Perle states that the debate is over, that the U.S. will deploy an ABM system. I remember being told the same thing in 1969 when Nixon was elected. This debate is far from over, and it will end only when all of the nuclear states are ready to accept their obligations under the NPT and give up their effort to rely on nuclear threats.

Walter Slocombe
3:21 p.m.  Thursday  7/11/96


This medium is not ideal for a five-way discussion. I've read back over the contributions so far, and want to respond to points that have gotten lost.

1. In saying that Halperin and Rhinelander advocate a policy of "inaction," I meant--as I think the context makes clear--only to note that they believe no action is needed on building a missile defense against long-range ballistic missiles, and to be clear that this approach is not, as Krauthammer apparently was claiming, the administration's.

2. Halperin and Rhinelander are right that deterrence continues to be relevant in the post Cold War era. A continued capacity to deter--which we are maintaining--is the instrument we still have to rely on for large scale threats. To be sure, even rogue states should take into account the power of the U.S. to retaliate against missile attacks on our nation, our troops, or our allies. However, as Iraq showed in the Gulf War, the leaders of such nations are prepared to take risks that more normal states would not run. It follows that, although it is wrong to regard any state as wholly undeterable, it is also imprudent to rely on deterrence alone for this brand of international outlaws.

3. Halperin proposes that if deterrence and arms control fail, we should, if a rogue nation acquires long-range missiles, attack the missiles pre-emptively. We should not absolutely rule out pre-emption in extreme cases. However, even aside from all other problems with such attacks, they are seldom simple, as the difficulty in locating Iraqi missiles in the 1991 Scud-hunt showed. Active defense is a far more reliable and workable hedge against ICBM development.

4. Rhinelander and Halperin also argue that there are threats other than ballistic missiles, including terrorist use of a van, ship or civil aircraft. This is true, and we need to and are working on improved ways to deal with such threats, but the existence of other threats is no argument for ignoring the need to defend against the current short-range ballistic threat, nor for declining to insure that a defense is ready if and when long-range missiles are developed by the likes of North Korea and Iran.

5. It appears to be agreed that it is sensible to work on defenses against shorter range threats. Indeed, Krauthammer's initial statement of the problem is exclusively about that threat. Certainly those defenses would not be foolproof, and the Defense Department does not so assert. By our phased theater missile defense (TMD) program, described in my second comment, we will, however, be able to mount a substantial defense against this threat as it grows, whether by Rhinelander's sub-munitions or in other ways. And there are multiple TMD systems because there are different sorts of threats and different sorts of technical requirements. Obviously there are service interests on this as on other systems, but the overall program has been shaped, and particular service efforts held back and others advanced, by central decision, to ensure that we get what we need when we need it.

6. Stein asks about costs. In contrast to the Star Wars task of defending the whole nation against massive nuclear attacks by a superpower, the mission of theater defense (and, indeed of homeland defense against small, relatively primitive attacks) is--though far from simple--technically feasible at affordable costs. For the record, the total DOD budget for both theater and national ballistic missile defense is $3.4 billion for the current fiscal year and $14 billion over the next five years. Most of that ($12 billion) is to develop and deploy theater defenses. About $2.5 billion is to develop a national defense against rogue-state attacks. If we were to decide to deploy, the additional cost would be about $7.5 billion. These amounts are obviously substantial, but, as Stein rightly points out, they are small relative to the total defense budget over the relevant period, much less the GNP. The case against a premature commitment to deploying a national missile defense is not just the waste of money, but, more important, the drawbacks to committing to a system unnecessarily early, instead of continuing to develop the technology and match it to the threat.

7. Stein worries about over-reliance on intelligence estimates. It is precisely because we do not want to rely excessively on the intelligence estimate that rogue states are not likely to have ICBMs for 15 years that the administration proposes to develop a national missile defense that will be available for deployment far sooner. Nonetheless, Perle exaggerates when he says "no one can say when" the threat will be real. Developing an ICBM is in fact a technically difficult and time-consuming process, particularly for nations with the limited resources of the rogue states. We cannot be sure how fast the process will go, but we are very likely to have significant warning of the development of such threats. (This is equally true if the rogue states are able to import technology and/or key components. That would shorten the time for them to build a missile force; it would not lose us all warning that they were doing so.) The whole point of our NMD program is to get well inside the "turning circle" of the threat; that is, to get to the point where we can deploy a defense well ahead of an ICBM threat.

8. Rhinelander argues that the missile defense problem is all but hopeless because "in the case of missiles, offense dominates." That may well be true of large-scale attacks by nations with access to highly sophisticated technology; it is clearly not true for the kind of rogue state threat (theater or longer-range) at issue here.

9. Krauthammer and Perle are right that we can't rely on arms control as the answer to the missile threat for the rogue states. (Though even for them, diplomacy has a role, at least in stemming the flow of aid from outside and, in some cases, such as with the North Korean nuclear program, even directly in limiting their own efforts.) However, in their enthusiasm to rush immediately to deploy a national missile defense against non-existent rogue state ICBMs, today's Star Warriors seem indifferent to the risk that the Russians will opt out of the arms control system (negotiated under Reagan and Bush as well as their predecessors) that has reduced the missile threat to the United States by thousands of weapons and will reduce it by thousands more in the coming years. While you have to be careful about believing statements of this kind, that is certainly what they say they will do, at the highest levels. Perle is right that it would be foolish and short-sighted of Russia to overreact to a limited U.S. NMD deployment, but countries sometimes behave that way. If we need to deploy an NMD that is not consistent with the ABM Treaty, we should seek to renegotiate the treaty and do what is necessary. What we should not do is put ourselves in the position of destroying the ABM Treaty and jeopardizing offensive arms reductions when that is not necessary.

10. To allay Perle's concern, we are not "screwing up" our theater defense program by negotiating with the Russians. In fact we have made clear that the ABM Treaty does not limit TMD work (a proposition that cuts both ways in the domestic political debate) and secured Russian agreement to a standard for limiting the applicability of the treaty that is exactly what Congress wrote into law last year. In the negotiations thus far we have achieved with the Russians an initial demarcation agreement based on exactly the criteria specifed in the Sense of Congress expressed in last year's legislation. (For aficionados, Congress specified that a missile defense system is not subject to the treaty unless it has been tested against a ballistic target missile exceeding 5 km/sec velocity or 3500 km range.)

11. I can assure Perle that, whatever "some of us think," I do not want to wait forever to deploy an NMD. I believe (as I gather he does) that an immediate commitment would be a mistake, if only because--under any plan--it will be three years until this is something real to commit to. I also believe that even after three years, unless we have more reason to believe a rogue nation ICBM threat is materializing, we should continue to improve the technology and match it to the threat, not commit to deploy the initially developed system. Once we commit to a system, costs escalate and we lose adaptability, risking ending up with a system obsolete by the time it's operational. But, once we have developed a system, if we see a threat emerging, I will be firmly among those arguing for building it, not waiting.

12. I am not sure why Perle thinks it is wrong for the administration to try to be a "consensus-builder" on this issue, which as he points out has been a divisive one for a generation or so. I rather suspect he doesn't think it wrong, but can't help having mixed feelings--welcoming the prospect of bipartisan agreement on a sensibly prioritized and effective missile defense program ("good enough for me," he says)--but regretting the loss of a great bumper-sticker issue.