Double Talk on Missile Defense

During his recent meetings in Beijing, Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated his frequent refrain that the Bush administration desires only a “limited” capability to shoot down long-range missiles. His words were intended to reassure rulers in Beijing who fear that an American missile shield allegedly designed against North Korea, Iran or Iraq might really be intended to neutralize their small nuclear deterrent.

Powell’s words failed to calm the Chinese. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has been listening to other Bush administration officials of late. Powell may himself prefer that any future U.S. and allied missile defense be limited, in order to preserve good relations and security cooperation among the great powers while dealing with the rogue-state threat. But all available evidence suggests that he is losing the debate within the administration on the subject.

Exhibit A is the Pentagon budget, which intends a $3 billion, or 60 percent, increase in missile defense efforts next year. Some of that proposed increase is for systems that could provide only short-range or theater missile defense, but much of it is for longer-range capabilities as well. The specifics of the Pentagon’s plans remain vague at this point. But by a conservative estimate, they suggest that the United States would ultimately deploy at least 1,000 defensive interceptors capable of shooting down long-range missile warheads. Even if many interceptors were not in proper position to counter China’s strategic forces, and even if it took several interceptors in the right position to shoot down a single offensive weapon, China would worry. Such a defense could theoretically intercept not just its current force of 20 strategic warheads but even the 50 to 100 warheads it might deploy in the future.

Exhibit B consists of the recent words of President Bush and his national security adviser. The president has repeatedly described the ABM Treaty as simply out of date, irrelevant and harmful to U.S. national security, and has indicated no interest in modifying it for today’s times. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who recently returned from consultations with the Russians on strategic issues, has gone even further. She has made it clear that the administration not only wants to eliminate the ABM Treaty but that it wishes to do away with strategic arms control in general. The “new framework” that Bush promised Moscow in his May 1 speech at National Defense University would consist of nothing more than information exchanges between Russia and the United States.

Coupled with the Pentagon’s budget plans, the meaning of this policy is becoming clear. The Bush administration wants to pursue any and all missile defense technologies without restraint and without limitation. In other words, the administration means just the opposite of what Colin Powell has said in Beijing.

Administration officials might try to explain this apparent contradiction by claiming that arms control for missile defenses simply cannot work at present, even if we wanted it to. Since technology is progressing so quickly, and since strategic circumstances remain in flux, any effort to constrain American freedom of maneuver through negotiations with Moscow would only serve to close off certain promising defense systems before they could be fully investigated.

That argument has some elements of truth to it, but it is ultimately wrong. It is true that various missile defense technologies are immature. But that is a good reason to try out three or four different ideas—not to pursue seven or eight, as the Pentagon now intends.

If the United States wants to keep a future long-range missile defense limited in scope and scale, it can do so without abandoning promising technological options. It can develop and test laser weapons, “hit-to-kill” interceptors like the Clinton administration’s preferred approach, and “boost phase” interceptors that would destroy an enemy rocket early in flight. All of these ideas are promising, and the Bush administration deserves credit for making it a priority to pursue them.

But other parts of the Bush plan require revision. First, and most simply, the United States should publicly state how many defensive interceptors it might someday deploy. It might agree to limit itself to 200 defensive interceptors for the foreseeable future, the original numerical ceiling in the ABM Treaty. It should also declare its willingness to sign a binding, if temporary, accord to that effect.

Second, and related, the Pentagon should not take weapons it intends to purchase in large numbers for other purposes and give them the additional capability to shoot down strategic missiles. If it does so, any possibility of deploying just a limited defense will be lost. For these reasons, the administration should abandon its plans to test so-called theater missile defenses—notably, the Navy Theater Wide system and the Army THAAD capability—against long-range missiles.

When it first came to power, the Bush administration was understandably vague about its missile defense plans as it sought to create better policy options than the Clinton administration had bequeathed it. But what began as vagueness is turning into outright contradiction between different parts of the government on the most sensitive national security issue of the day.