How to Defend America Against Missile Attack

How to Defend America Against Missile Attack

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Charles Krauthammer
10:01 a.m.  Friday  7/12/96

Rhinelander and Stein bring up the question of submunitions which can be dispensed early in flight by ballistic missiles and which make the job of any defense extremely difficult by multiplying numbers of targets to be shot down. The obvious answer is to shoot the missile down in its boost phase before it deploys its submunitions. But an effective boost missile defense needs space-based components (for early detection and perhaps as platforms for counter-weapons) and very high-speed interceptors. The problem with the ABM Treaty is that it outlaws the first and places restrictions on the second. It is thus neither the laws of physics nor our lack of technology which prevent us from mounting an effective boost-phase defense. It is slavish adherence to the ABM Treaty.

And despite Slocombe's demurral, slavish it remains. Yeltsin himself in 1992 proposed going beyond ABM to work cooperatively with us on ballistic missile defenses. Instead, by May 1995, Clinton was issuing a joint communique with the Russians declaring the ABM Treaty "the cornerstone of strategic stability."

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Slocombe argues that we must not jeopardize the ABM Treaty because the Russians might then not abide by their agreements to (mutually) reduce offensive missiles. As Perle points out this would be a totally irrational Russian response. Moreover, it hardly makes much difference. Whether the Russians are aiming 2,000 or 4,000 ballistic missiles at us makes no difference to our security. Either arsenal can destroy us many times over and no ABM system can protect us against either. If the Russians want to keep a large number of redundant and useless missiles, let them. So long as we maintain an invulnerable retaliatory force, it makes no difference.

Nonetheless, in order to prevent a Russian response which is irrational, highly unlikely, and would make no difference to us in any case, Slocombe would cling to the ABM Treaty that prevents us from building the single most effective--i.e., boost phase--anti-missile system.

Finally, I'm glad to see confirmation from this panel that there is now a consensus in favor of building theater missile defenses. But there remains a debate about whether we ought to have a national defense for the soil and people of the United States. This is an odd distinction.

We are all now in favor of deploying missiles to defend our friends overseas--and the most immediately threatened are Taiwan and Israel--and have a huge debate about whether we ought to be defending ourselves. In the '70s, Democrats suffered the curious paradox of being gung-ho for spending money on Israel's defenses and equally gung-ho for cutting back money spent on America's. Twenty years later, we are in the curious position of being all in favor of defending Israel (among others) from ballistic missile attack while being not quite sure whether we want to defend America.

Richard Perle
11:11 a.m.  Friday  7/12/96


I wonder whether Mort Halperin would be so eager to launch preemptive wars against rogue states if he were still in the White House. The question is relevant because the bluster behind his policy--one that would have us remain defenseless right up until the moment we launch a preemptive war--will be made, not by commentators online, but by government officials of the sort Mort once was. They are, in my experience, cautious, usually very cautious. Slocombe certainly sounds cautious as he rightly rejects Halperin's idle bellicosity. When Walt says simply that preemptive attacks "are seldom simple" he spares his readers a catalogue of nightmare scenarios certain to cause real decision makers to wish to hell they had a ballistic missile defense in place.

Mort, would we launch an attack on, say, North Korean missiles if we were to discover them nearing completion? Would such an attack lead to an invasion across the DMZ? Do we attack on the basis of intelligence reports that an Iraqi missile is about to become operational? Is it believed to be hidden in a mosque? Could we be confident of getting them all? As I recall, the idea of dealing with possible North Korean nuclear weapons by attacking them was thought to be too dangerous because we didn't know where they might be and we couldn't be confident of success.

The idea that the United States would order an attack on the missiles of a country that had not attacked us first is fanciful. But it is an idea to which the opponents of ballistic missile defense have long resorted. I remember the late Sen. William Fulbright arguing that rather than build the Safeguard missile defense, we should launch nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union on the strength of radar warnings of an attack. With doves like you guys, who needs hawks? At the end of the day, a defense that is activated only after we come under attack has it all over a posture that requires us to strike first.

Slocombe and I agree that Stein is right to doubt the reliability of intelligence estimates. Slocombe's reluctance to rely on his administration's estimate that "rogue states are not likely to have ICBMs for 15 years" is understandable: It's a worthless estimate and he knows it. One wishes he had registered that view before it was released. Sadly, the official CIA estimate rests on ludicrous and, one suspects, politically motivated assumptions (e.g., missiles obtained by rogue states will be the product of indigenous technical development, without outside help; ballistic missiles for rogue states cannot be acquired by purchase, theft or technical assistance) clearly intended to help the administration counter Republican pressures to get on with building defenses. The 15-year estimate, which the administration would have been wise to withdraw, was demolished by former Clinton CIA director Jim Woolsey in testimony before Congress just a few weeks ago. The current director is too honest to defend it. And while Slocombe accuses me of exaggerating when I say that "no one knows" when we will need a missile defense, I stand by my view that it is inherently unknowable. If Slocombe won't rely on the CIA's flawed estimate of 15 years, will he buy 14? Or 12? Or six? How about three? Is the theft and sale of a Russian mobile missile to Iran unlikely? Is it impossible? Might China help Pakistan with missile technology which might then leak to Libya? How about space launch vehicles used in many civilian space programs? Could they be adapted for military purposes? You get my point.

Even if we thought we knew all the myriad ways missile technology or missiles themselves might wind up in objectionable hands, our track record in anticipating the acquisition of military technology and systems is hardly impressive. Sometimes we can't figure it out even after it's happened as in the continuing debate over what missiles the Iraqis may still possess after the United Nations has been crawling all over the place for years. We've frequently been wrong about this sort of military/technical intelligence. That's certainly the history of our estimates of the evolution of Soviet military technology with respect to the H-bomb, warhead technology, missile accuracy, and the like. But the vexing issues remains the acquisition, as opposed to the indigenous development of missiles by rogue states. There is simply no reliable way to know how or when it might happen. That is why Slocombe's assurance that we will have time to respond to the rogue-state threat before it is upon us is just not convincing.

I stand by my belief that the Russians will not respond to a limited American defense by pouring resources into a superfluity of strategic missiles. For one thing, the "turning circle," to which Slocombe refers, while doubtful with respect to what could be a sudden acquisition of ballistic missiles by a rogue state, would certainly apply to the construction by the U.S. of a defense large enough to cause the Russians to worry that their thousands of warheads (allowed under START) are too few for deterrence. Surely you can't argue, Walt, that we'll get certain, early knowledge of a small clandestine missile program in any one of a dozen countries while the hapless Russians will miss a massive U.S. ballistic missile defense effort until it is too late for them to add offensive missiles (which they may well have in hiding even now). The United States publishes its programs, usually years in advance. An undertaking as massive as a defense competent to cause the Russians concern could not be mounted clandestinely. If nothing else some Halperin in the White House, or a Rhinelander in the New York Times would blow the whistle.

But the main point is this: The Cold War Is Over. Strategic policies that seemed to make sense when the world was divided into armed camps just don't make sense today. Curiously, we hawks are much more willing to embrace this truth than you doves. Maybe that's because you're still having trouble accepting that the policies of strength--including SDI--produced the Western victory in the Cold War. I know it pains you, John and Mort--and maybe even Walt. But could we get a candid word in the last go-around on the success of the Reagan Cold War policies, especially SDI?

Now, I'm grateful that Walt Slocombe would seek to assure me that the Pentagon is not screwing up the theater defense program. But I'm worried. I'm especially worried that we're negotiating with Moscow about such things as the technical characteristics of our theater defenses. At the very least the administration seems to be implying that an agreement with the Russians which defines the line of demarcation between prohibited strategic defenses, and unregulated theater defenses, is necessary and desirable.

I don't think it's either. If, after observing our theater defense program, the Russians wish to charge us with a violation of the ABM treaty on the grounds that we are really building a prohibited national defense, let them do so--we can answer them persuasively. But let's not limit our freedom to develop the best and most effective theater defenses our technology allows. I understand, in this regard, that we've discussed with the old Cold War crowd in Moscow the idea of limiting the speed of our interceptor missiles, and we may even agree to a maximum speed that would limit severely the effectiveness of a highly promising sea-based theater defense now under grudging consideration by the administration after Congress demanded that it be explored. This would be a terrible mistake. We are the world technology leader. Why would we want to limit technology? Why would we cap the speed of our interceptor missiles if doing so had the effect of greatly limiting the area over which they can be effective? Assure me again, Walt.

Walt Slocombe argues that we ought to wait--until we see the whites of their eyes--before embarking on a limited defense of U.S. territory against missile attack. The argument for this--that we can continue to refine the technology involved before committing to a specific system--has some superficial appeal. But technology evolves in complex ways, not just in laboratories. First generation systems are almost never adequate. At some point we'll have to get on with it. And it's far from clear that endless, dilatory tinkering with technology until the last minute (in the hope it will never come) is safer or more effective than starting work on the basis of the best technology we now have and improving it steadily over time.

In the end, I believe that the single greatest impediment to an effective national defense is not uncertainty about the technology or the evolution of the threat. It is, rather, the strictures of the ABM treaty and its underlying premise that a defense against ballistic missiles is undesirable and therefore prohibited. Only after we reshape the treaty to suit the radically different circumstances of the post-Cold War world--only after we legalize the best and most effective defense our rapidly evolving technology allows--only then will I, for one, be assured that we will one day be defended adequately.

Walt Slocombe misunderstands if he thinks I'm opposed to a consensus on these matters. But building one requires collaboration between Congress and the executive. The fact that Sen. Jon Kyl, a thoughtful and serious student of these matters, has found it necessary to file suit in Federal District Court to compel the administration to implement the law as it relates to theater defenses is not an encouraging sign.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. Slocombe has embraced the concept of a national defense and even the accelerated Congressional timetable. We can leave the details to specialists. The Halperin-Rhinelander good-cop-bad-cop approach to rogue state missiles (Rhinelander will kill 'em with diplomacy and if that fails, Halperin will kill 'em, period) is, by consensus among the rest of us, a non-starter. Not bad for a week online.

John Rhinelander
11:22 a.m.   Friday  7/12/96


Two treaties-the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 (NPT) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 (ABM Treaty) are twin pillars of U.S. national security. Both could unravel if the U.S. took ill-advised efforts to deploy robust ballistic missile defenses. Krauthammer apparently does not understand or care about these international agreements. Richard Perle, to his credit, has at least been consistent since the early 1970s. His opposition to the ABM Treaty, fortunately, was and remains in the minority.

The NPT is the most widely adhered-to treaty in the world. It has been a major factor in limiting the nuclear-weapon states to eight at present five acknowledged (U.S., Russia, UK, France and China) and the three unannounced (Israel, India and Pakistan), the latter refusing to join the NPT. All the other states in the world are committed not to develop nuclear weapons, including South Africa which gave up the four assembled nuclear bombs it had.

A continuing and strengthened NPT regime is central to U.S. security interests, particularly with respect to "rogue" states clandestinely pursuing nuclear weapons.

The NPT will be reviewed again by its members next year. Two developments, in addition to the Israeli situation, will be central: (1) whether a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) was achieved in 1996, and (2) whether the U.S. and Russia have moved to reduce further their nuclear weapons by beginning to implement START II and to negotiate toward even lower levels in START III.

A CTBT is on the verge of achievement, with the five nuclear-weapon states and many others hopefully ready to sign a completed text this September. Further U.S.-Russian reductions under START II and follow-on efforts are far less certain.

The U.S. Senate has approved START II, but the Russian Duma has not yet acted. The Duma may vote this fall, but whenever it does the Duma will formally condition ratification, and thus further Russian reductions of their strategic nuclear weapons, on continued U.S. adherence to the ABM Treaty. Further, there will be no START III, and no eventual reductions including the U.K., France, and China in a START IV, without a ratified START II.

Accordingly, the keystone arms control question becomes whether the United States will continue to adhere to the ABM Treaty, as presently in effect or as modified by agreed negotiated changes. This issue is now embroiled in partisan politics in Congress and the presidential hustings.

Candidate Dole and most Republicans In the House and Senate favor flight testing and deploying as rapidly as possible ballistic missile defense systems that are clearly inconsistent with the ABM Treaty. To pursue this course, the U.S. would have to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, which it can legally do on six months' notice, since the Russians have made unmistakably clear they are not willing to gut the present treaty to accommodate these extreme U.S. views.

President Clinton has vetoed past similar Republican proposals, and would clearly do so again if Congress were to pass action-forcing legislation this year, which appears increasingly unlikely. The U.K., France, China and others have expressed grave concern with a robust U.S. program--Sen. Nunn is proposing alternative legislation calling for the United States to make a decision, in the year 2000, whether or not to deploy a largely ground-based, treaty-compliant system for a 'thin' nationwide U.S. defense.

The debate is set for Congress again this week and by the Presidential candidates this fall, but history should not be forgotten. Candidate Richard Nixon severely criticized the Johnson administration in the fall of 1968 for its failure to deploy a nationwide ABM system as the Democratic-controlled Congress was then urging. President Nixon then achieved in 1972 the path-breaking ABM Treaty that precludes all but a single site ABM defense with 100 deployed fixed, land-based interceptor launchers (the U.S. later dismantled its ineffective, but legally permissible ABM complex after only six months of operations. Russia continues to operate a system around Moscow, but no one pretends it is effective.) The ABM Treaty became, and remains, the necessary precondition to the limitations and reductions of SALT I, SALT II, START I, and START II, and will remain so for future reduction agreements, as Mort Halperin has made clear.

Could Candidate Dole's present posture be deja vu all over again if he were to become President in 1997?

Next, I will tackle the question whether the U.S. ever should ever consider deploying a nationwide defense system, and suggest "perhaps."

John Rhinelander
12:03 p.m.  Friday  7/12/96


Herb Stein has asked whether those of us currently opposed to deploying an effective, nationwide BMD in defense of the us would ever recommend doing so. My answer is yes, perhaps.

In 1986, then President Reagan proposed to Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit the abolition of all ballistic missiles, "fast flyers" as he referred to them. Most U.S. and NATO national security experts had collective apoplexy at the thought, but the Soviets saved them by rejecting the offer. The key reason for the Soviet rejection was that Reagan wanted to pursue Star Wars at the same time.

Mort Halperin has made clear why the deployment of a U.S. missile defense is counter productive to the urgent, primary goal of reducing the currently excessive Russian offensive ballistic missiles. (Similarly, the U.S. has made clear in times past, including Secretary of Defense Weinburger's admonition to President Reagan before the Geneva Summit in 1985, that the United States would not reduce its offensive systems if the Soviets were to begin to deploy a nationwide defense.) That position--linking offensive reductions to limitations on defense--makes sense as long as each side relies on deterrence.

But what if the U.S. and Russia (and probably the U.K., France and China also) had agreed on zero ballistic missiles (ZBM) and had taken preliminary steps to end reliance on ballistic missiles, such as separating all warheads from the missiles? Would ballistic missile defenses then serve as cost effective insurance policies, both against cheating by those that agreed to ZBM and against "rogue" states?

Is it possible that Reagan's trilogy--zero ballistic missiles, effective ballistic missile defenses, and shared defenses made available by the U.S. to all those who support ZBM--could all be realized?

Is this worth seriously pursuing? Would ballistic missile defense under these circumstances be both wise and cost effective? How should the costs and technologies be shared? I strongly favor the debate focused an these issues. BMD as insurance in a ZBM world might be a bargain.

John Rhinelander
12:48 p.m.  Friday  7/12/96


I concur with Slocombe that this is an imperfect medium for five participants even assuming the technology worked well, which it has not. But now to substance.

I am amazed, but should not be, that the proponents of early nationwide BMD--Krauthammer and apparently Perle--are oblivious to costs, and our moderator is nearly so with $10-$20 billion a year insignificant, notwithstanding his former important government role in the Nixon administration.

Slocombe has laid out present and future cost figures for the administration's proposal. Browsers should note, however, that these types of forecasts are predictably understated by 50 percent to 100 percent, at an absolute minimum.

The Defense Department budget is grossly under-funded in terms of the projections for the next five years, probably in excess of $100 billion. The new Nunn-Lugar-Domenici initiative to deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is sailing through Congress, but without any money targeted for it. The Republican-controlled Congressional Budget Office identified the costs of the Dole-Gingrich "effective BMD defense" bill at $31 to $60 billion What happened in the past, and apparently now, is that defense experts understate costs and then say take the money out of domestic programs anyway. Of course, domestic program experts say the opposite. Further, Republicans in the Congress are clambering for huge tax cuts. About the only thing agreed, in principle, between our Democratic President and our Republican Congress are the last contentions year in Washington is that the budget should be balanced within seven years. As usual, the devil Is In the details, and the devil is growing before our very eyes.

The next President will have to address a grossly under-funded Defense Department, based on its present missions. He will also have to face Social Security, Medicare, and middle-class entitlements funding issues that can no longer be avoided. And all will probably be addressed in the context of agreement in principle to reach a balanced budget. This will be the budget donnybrook of the century.

It would certainly help bring the ballistic missile debate down to reality if the proponents of higher spending for BMD would specify what defense items they would cut, and by how much over time, to fund whatever level of BMD they advocate over the next ten years. A failure to address the budget issue, or to take it out of domestic programs, is simply a cop out.

Richard Perle and Charles Krauthammer notwithstanding, BMD has not been supported in the past because it was not cost effective. I believe the same judgment will win out over the next four years, starting in 1997, when partisan posturing and rhetoric cool, and the difficult job of governing takes over. As a reminder, Congress' support for BMD in 1969 that Perle remembers had vanished in less than two years, and President Nixon pleaded for funds as "bargaining chips" to strengthen the negotiators hands to obtain the best ABM Treaty and initial limitations on strategic offensive weapons that we could.

Will history repeat itself?

John Rhinelander
1:06 p.m.  Friday  7/12/96


Krauthammer's Wednesday attack on "my faith in arms control" requires two focused responses.

First, no one should doubt the rogue states do not like the us and went to cause harm. But the threats, which are real, are not from ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction. A long-range, two- or three-stage ballistic missile is different in kind from the single-stage, short-range SCUD-type threat. Further, a crude, Hiroshima-type, or even more sophisticated Nagasaki-type, bomb would be so large and heavy that it could never be delivered by ballistic missile. Years of visible or detectable development and testing, which our national intelligence assets could monitor, would be required before a real threat ballistic missile to the continental U.S. from one of the "rogue" states could ever developed.

Second, there was no intrusion inspection of Iraq before the Gulf War. Where has Krauthammer been not to realize the instructions then imposed on LAEA inspectors limited them to facilities declared by Iraq. The LAEA role has now changed, although details for intrusive inspections are still being worked out in Vienna. Finally, there is a huge difference between hiding missiles that were produced or assembled in the past, which rightfully worries Rolf Ekaus, from new production and assembly.

More generally, arms control is not the only response to the nuclear, chemical and biological threat, whether or not delivered by ballistic missile. I made this clear in my opening comment. The critical second line of defense is conventional military force, which necessarily relies on first-rate Intelligence.

Senators Nunn, Lugar and Domenici have proposed legislation that deals with new domestic roles for the U.S. military as part of a comprehensive emergency response program, all supportive of law enforcement and other domestic officials efforts to prepare this country to counter, and respond if necessary, to terrorists that may obtain nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. This "defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction" initiative was approved 96-0 by the Senate and awaits House action, but no money has been appropriated.

It is directed toward a serious, long-term threat, but obviously raises fundamental civil rights and civil liberties issues that should be of concern to both the left and right. Where are the press and pundits, including Krauthammer, on this?

In addition to new and necessary domestic actions, there must be all out efforts to eliminate, to the extent possible, weapons of mass destruction. This should be self-evident, but under the best of circumstances would take years. Present efforts are half-hearted when they need to be focused and include mutual obligations. Congress is weakening in its support for priorities established in the current Nunn-Lugar acts to improve security over Russian weapons and materials. But these are the kind of practical, though imperfect and unglamorous steps required to most the real challenges, as Sen. Lugar repeatedly warns. Krauthammer apparently disagrees for reasons that are not clear, perhaps believing missile defense will thwart suicidal truck bombers.

Missile defenses have never been up to the incredibly difficult roles wishfully assigned to them by Krauthammer and Perle, and apparently by Slocombe. Among the SLATE panelists at least, why not start with a theoretically easier challenger-intercepting slower-moving artillery rounds after they have been fired? If we could do this, then Seoul might be defensible from North Korean artillery barrages fired from weapons hidden in mountains within easy range of the city-In fact, the U.S. and South Korean initial "defense" in case of war now would be counter-battery fire against the North Korean artillery, not the shells in flight, and this U.S. high tech counter-battery weaponry is improving all the time.

Interestingly, this is analogous to the most effective defense against SCUDs in the Gulf War. The Iraqis were so busy hiding because of their fear of our counter-fi fired the majority of their SCUDs.

That was effective defense, perhaps more so than the weapons that were actually delivered from the air. Read the new GAO study, "Operation Desert Storm-Evaluation of the Air War."(For access to GAO reports on the INTERNET, send an e-mail message with "info" in the body to: info@www.gao.gov).

If war came to the Korean peninsula, North Korea would surely lose, but Seoul would probably be destroyed. Do diplomacy and arms control, past, present and future, have a role here to try to avoid this? Do they have a role in trying to keep out of the hands of terrorists the huge, unsecured inventory of nuclear weapons and weapon-grade fissile material in Russia? Do we really think we can solve our problems and vulnerabilities by relying on technology and primarily acting alone?

Morton Halperin
1:15 p.m.  Friday  7/12/96


The battle over an ABM deployment in the United States has raged for 30 years. The arguments against a deployment have remained constant, while the rationale for the deployment keeps changing.

To review the arguments briefly:

Krauthammer now suggests that we should not care if the Russians ratify START II and reduce the size of their force. This is enormously shortsighted. We want the Russian ICBM force reduced and off alert to reduce the risk of inadvertent or accidental war. This will be much harder to accomplish if we deploy a national ABM system.

Moreover, if we and the Russians move away from progress on arms control, it will be much more difficult to make progress on non-proliferation. (This subject deserves much more attention than it received in these exchanges.)

Finally, an ABM defense is very expensive--even given our budget--and it is a false god that cannot give us the absolute protection that its proponents take for granted, even against rogue states.

So why do people want it? As I say, the reasons keep changing.

For many, the real goal is still "Star Wars," a large system designed to cope with a Russian second strike. Few now admit that objective, and no serious person believes that an ABM system would be effective in such a situation.

At other times it was the Chinese against which we were deploying. The Nixon deployment, which Pearle is so proud of supporting, was to protect our missiles. Both of these rationales have faded from sight.

Thus, the proponents are left with the behavior of mythical rogue states as the basis for an ABM system.

This is a threat and a rationale that is so vague, so hypothetical, and so beside the point that it is hard to believe that it really motivates anyone.

No rogue state has shown the slightest intention of spending the vast sums involved or running the grave risks of trying to develop an ICBM capability to attack American cities.

We can and should deter any such temptation by making it clear that we will not tolerate it and will destroy any such deployments before they were operational.

Notwithstanding the difficulty we had in finding short range mobile Iraqi missiles, we would detect a rogue state ICBM and nuclear weapons program long before there was an operational missile mated to an effective warhead, and we could destroy any such force.

Moreover, it makes no sense to say that the United States should defend itself against one remote threat to our cities (nuclear tipped ICBMs), when there are more serious threats (e.g. biological agents) that we have no idea how to defend against. You do not fortify the attic window if the front door is missing. The United States, for example, dismantled its effective air defense system because everyone understood that it made no sense to protect against airplanes if we could not protect ourselves from missiles.

The only way to make us secure against rogue states, real and potential, is to work to bring them into the international community, and in the meantime to work with the United Nations to prevent them from developing weapons of mass destruction.

It is ironic that those who most preach the need for insurance are objecting to the very small sums indeed that the United States is being asked to contribute to the program to end the North Korean nuclear effort. Keeping that program on track is a much more effective way to prevent a North Korean ICBM than is an American ABM deployment.

In the case of Iraq, the U.N. sanctions and U.N. inspection system are the keys to preventing an Iraqi nuclear program, and I suggest that support for the U.N.--including paying our dues--is a more effective insurance policy than an ABM deployment against rogue states.

Similarly, we should be looking for cooperative efforts to make sure that Iran, Libya and other potential rogue states have neither the incentive nor the means to develop a nuclear-tipped ICBM.

I want to defend the United States just as much as Krauthammer or Pearle. The question is how can we best defend America and insure that our cities do not become the target of rogue nations. Giving the Star Warriors the ABM they have always craved is no part of a sensible answer.

Walter Slocombe
1:56 p.m.  Friday  7/12/96


For all of the overheated rhetoric that surrounds the ballistic missile defense issue, ostensible disagreements show a remarkable tendency to dissolve when we get to particulars.

Much of the debate--and here the differences seem to be of emphasis more than substance--focuses on separate issues: threats other than ballistic missiles, and counters to the missile threat other than active missile defense. Certainly we need to be concerned about threats other than ballistic missiles, and we should be and are pursuing counters to them. Certainly there are counters to the missile threat other than active missile defenses, and we should be and are pursuing them. (Pre-emption is no substitute for active defense, although we should not rule it out absolutely.)

When we get to the central issue of active defense against missiles, there seems to be no disagreement that we should actively counter theater missile threat--and we are.

As for homeland missile defense, the administration is attacked both by those who think a rogue state ICBM threat sufficient to justify a homeland defense will never materialize, and by those--like Congressional Republicans--who want to make a deployment decision now. Even Richard Perle agrees with the administration's policy of pursuing a readiness program that will ensure we are able to meet a threat before it comes on line, rather than making a potentially wasteful and inefficient instant decision right now. (Admittedly, he doubts the administration's will to decide right, once the time comes, but what else is new.)

The real issue reduces to priorities, and here, we have it right. The major missile threat--theater missiles--gets the most urgent response; for the more remote prospect of a credible and counterable rogue state ICBM threat to our homeland, we are pursuing a program--which, incidentally, includes space-based sensors--that keeps us ahead of the curve, without wasting resources better spent elsewhere, or locking us into technology unnecessarily quickly. Meanwhile, we continue to use all of the other instruments--diplomacy, arms control, and even, where appropriate, military force--to prevent and deter the threat.

While it may be disappointing to those who are primarily interested in a political issue, the remarkable thinness of programmatic, as opposed to rhetorical differences with the administration's ballistic missile defense program should be reassuring to the correspondents and readers, whose concern is the importance of defending our troops, our allies--and our homeland--from missile attack, not electoral issues.

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