The film Thirteen Days, which deals with the Cuban missile crisis, reminds us that the danger of global nuclear annihilation does not come, mainly, from irrational adversaries and rogue states. Instead, the main threat stems from the policies and behaviors of those entrusted with the world’s largest and most volatile nuclear arsenal—our own.
Since Ronald Reagan announced what was dubbed “Star Wars” in 1983, missile defense has come to dominate the evolution of strategic technologies and strategic thinking. For the leaders of the nuclear establishment, its propaganda value has been immense; it has enabled them to escape the stigma of Dr. Strangelove and to portray themselves as guardians of the search for security and survival.
The American debate over missile defense has accepted this self-portrayal—so much so that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld now feels able to describe the pursuit of missile defense as a “moral imperative.” Accordingly, the American argument over whether to proceed has come to turn on technical issues. Opponents make the superficially pragmatic argument that decisions to deploy should be delayed until the system can be proven to work. In taking this position, they concede the principle that a working system would be a good thing.
But in fact, missile defenses in all forms are drastically destabilizing, easily defeated, and globally dangerous whether the system works or not. The new administration may be showing technical realism in shifting emphasis from a national ballistic missile shield to the more limited theater missile defense (TMD). But TMD has its own dangers, and a decision to move TMD now does not preclude a decision to move ahead with national missile defense (NMD) later.
Put simply, national missile defense is wrongheaded on four counts.
First, it is a diplomatic disaster. Deployment of NMD requires abrogation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). The administration claims to regard this treaty as a cold war relic, but it is the foundation of the entire structure of strategic arms control. Without the ABM Treaty, neither Russia nor China can feel secure in their second-strike capabilities, and neither will comfortably adhere to their long-standing restraint in nuclear offensive weapons. Our allies in Europe and elsewhere recognize these dangers, and for this reason they also oppose U.S. NMD.
Second, it is a technological dead end. As defense, national missile defense will not work, for the simple reason that it is easily defeated by decoys and by attacks on the “eyes” of the system. The fact that the technology has not matured after forty years of effort is clear evidence of this fact. It took only six years to go from the discovery of uranium fission to the detonation of an atomic bomb, and only one test to show that the implosion bomb would work. NMD has been tested repeatedly. There is no sign that the fund...
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