A Democratic Case for Missile Defense

In a springtime rite that has becomoe as predictable as the blooming of the cherry blossoms, many Democrats on Capitol Hill are criticizing the Bush administration’s hasty schedule for deploying a national missile defense system. The Democrats have some good arguments in their quiver. Missile defense technologies are indeed very imperfect, corresponding budgets are way too high, and many Republicans are motivated to support missile defense as much for ideological as national security rationales. That said, those Democrats who oppose any deployment of an imperfect system this year are wrong on the substance and on the politics of the matter, and are in danger of handing Mr. Bush a potent campaign issue if they do not change course.

The controversy surrounds whether the Pentagon should deploy several interceptors capable of shooting down long-range warheads from a country like North Korea this fiscal year. Not coincidentally, the deployment would occur in the months just before the presidential election. By the end of 2005, a total of 20 interceptors would be stationed on land, in Alaska and California, with 10 more at sea. An annual budget exceeding $10 billion, or twice what the Clinton administration was spending on missile defense when it left office, would fund this and other ongoing efforts to develop technologies to shoot down missiles of various ranges.

As critics point out, the missile defense programs due to be deployed in the coming months are far from mature. There have been several successful tests of the “hit to kill” technology at issue. In the Alaska/California system, a large, three-stage defensive rocket would ascend just above the atmosphere before releasing a small homing vehicle that would maneuver itself into the path of an incoming reentry vehicle that could carry a nuclear or biological weapon. The resulting high-speed collision would destroy the weapon. But some tests have failed. And even those that have succeeded have involved surrogate components (like a slower defensive rocket, not the actual three-stage version intended for deployment). They have also needed help in finding and tracking the target warheads, since not all parts of the intended sensor network have yet been built.

As Lt. General Ron Kadish, director of the Pentagon’s missile defense efforts, put it, “The idea of fly before buy is very difficult for this system. This is fly as we buy.”

But even if the technology is rushed, and even if the Bush deployment timelines are partly political, deploying an interim missile defense capability in the coming months makes sense. Strategically speaking, since we have absolutely no missile defense capability now, even an imperfect system is better than the status quo. This is not a question of replacing an existing proven weapon, like an F-15 fighter aircraft or transport helicopter, with a new technology like the F-22 or V-22. Rather, deploying a basic missile defense quickly is more analogous to building rudimentary fortifications or throwing up barricades when one’s city is otherwise entirely open to invaders.

Of course, it is easy to hype the missile defense issue, and Republicans often do. Long-range missile strike is not the nation’s foremost security concern at present. Far from it. And the country about which we have worried most, North Korea, continues a moratorium on long-range missile tests that now dates back over five years.

But these are arguments in favor of showing restraint in how much we spend on missile defense and how rapidly we field a large system. They are not arguments against a small-scale deployment this year. Here a good analogy might be the use of JSTARS radar reconnaissance aircraft in Operation Desert Storm. At that time, the United States only had two such aircraft, and they were developmental designs rather than proven systems. But since the Department of Defense had no other platform capable of surveying large swaths of territory to find moving objects in bad weather or at night at the time, the deployment of JSTARS made sense, and yielded appreciable benefits.

Moreover, the missile threat is real. It is easy to forget, after the recent war to overthrow Saddam, that in Desert Storm the most lethal attack against US troops involved a SCUD missile. In addition, the greatest strategic threat to the campaign’s success was the series of SCUD strikes against Israel that threatened to bring that country into the war and thus splinter the coalition. Patriot defenses did not perform very well in Desert Storm, but the upgraded versions did much better in last year’s war, and missiles ultimately posed no comparable threats to the 2003 campaign’s success.

Admittedly, the missile defense system at issue here is not designed to defeat SCUDs, but rather long-range missiles of a type no US adversary has yet mastered. That said, North Korea surprised us once, in 1998, with a partially successful test of such a three-stage rocket. We have no way to be sure it could not do so again—or even field a workable missile—on short notice. Even those of us who favor a much different negotiation strategy with Pyongyang than that followed by this administration must concede that an alternative diplomatic strategy could also fail. So even a Kerry administration might have to face the possibility of such a threat. Why not put a rudimentary missile defense in place before, rather than after, such a development?

Some will argue that North Korea would never strike the United States with a long-range missile, since that would ensure the regime’s demise. This argument is right for some circumstances. But might Pyongyang feel more emboldened to provoke security crises, and attempt to extort resources from the United States and its neighbors, if it had a long-range missile? And in the unthinkable event that war ever again occurred on the peninsula, would we want a dying but nuclear-armed North Korean regime to have the capability to take down an American city with it?

Democrats should reign in the Bush administration on missile defense. We need not spend $10 billion a year on such systems; two-thirds that amount would suffice, even if some technology programs had to be slowed and actual deployments scaled back. The savings could be used to increase temporarily the size of the severely overdeployed Army, as suggested by Democratic senators John Kerry and Jack Reid as well as a number of other members of Congress of both parties. This combination of limited support for missile defense and real help to our overburdened troops is the right mix for Democrats on security grounds and also political grounds.

To deploy a national missile defense this year is nothing more than to fulfill the plan of President Clinton, who himself supported a program to deploy a national missile defense no later than 2005. In fact, rather than letting Mr. Bush be the champion of the Alaska/California interceptor concept, Democrats on the Hill would do better to insist that the heretofore unnamed program be designated the Clinton missile defense system. That counterintuitive move would surely get under Republican skin. More to the point, it would help Democrats burnish their party’s national security credentials at just the moment when they need it.