A bit of news that flew under the radar: Last Thursday, the first U.S. anti-missile interceptor was deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska. And so it begins. President George W. Bush's multibillion-dollar missile-defense program has taken on the threads, if not yet the full cloak, of reality.
The press release from the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency hailed the event as marking "the end of an era where we have not been able to defend our country against long-range ballistic missile attacks." Not that this single interceptor—or the four that will join it by the end of the year, or the five more due to arrive by the end of next year—will truly offer a defense either. The release acknowledges that an "operational" system requires many more interceptors—on land and sea and in outer space—along with an integrated network of radars, sensors, battle-management computers, and command-control-communications gear, none of which yet exist.
But, the release concludes, the "initial limited capability" established with Thursday's deployment constitutes "a vast improvement" over our previous ability to shoot down long-range ballistic missiles, which, of course, was "nonexistent."
It may seem that a few anti-missile missiles, or even just one, would be better than none at all. In fact, though, that's not the case. In this particular instance, and in several important ways, none is better.
Clearly, this argument is counterintuitive. It may, at first glance, seem absurd. But stick with me.
The missile-defense complex in Alaska is designed specifically to help shoot down long-range ballistic missiles launched from North Korea. But a limited missile-defense system—which is the most we can expect over the next decade—is more likely to multiply than nullify this threat.
A look at history is useful. In 1972, Richard Nixon signed the ABM Treaty, which severely restricted—and, in a subsequent addendum signed by Gerald Ford, banned—the deployment of ballistic-missile defenses. Why? Contrary to right-wing myth, it was not because of some doctrinal aversion to defenses. True, the theory of "Mutual Assured Destruction" held that the two superpowers should remain vulnerable to nuclear attack so that neither leader would launch a first strike knowing his own country would be destroyed in a retaliatory second strike. But MAD—as the theory was often called—was more theory than policy.
The real reasoning behind the treaty was purely practical. If the United States deployed, say, 50 defensive missiles—and assuming they all worked perfectly—the USSR could outwit the system and break through the defenses simply by deploying 51 offensive missiles. And the cost of those 51 offensive missiles would be a lot cheaper than the cost of the 50 defensive missiles. Finally, the USSR could stay ahead of this game much more cheaply still, because—even under the most optimistic projections—not all of our 50 defensive missiles would work. (For more about the reasoning, click here.)
In short, American, and eventually Soviet, decision-makers realized that missile defenses would trigger a costly offense-defense arms race, which the offense would inevitably win. Moreover, if nuclear war did break out in the middle of this arms race, the damage inflicted would be far greater. Each side would fire many more offensive missiles than it might have otherwise, calculating the need to saturate the other side's defenses. If the defenses turned out not to work so well (as many scientists predicted, back then as well as now), then those extra offensive missiles would simply blow up more territory, spread more radioactive fallout, and kill more people.
The parallel between then and now is not precise. North Korea does not have the resources that the Soviet Union had at the height of the Cold War. But with the deployment of the new missile-defense system, the United States has entered into an arms race with the North Koreans—an arms race we are likely to lose—and nobody in the White House or the Congress seems even to be aware of it.