Everyone’s Wrong About ‘Star Wars’

In a report that will prove inconvenient for opponents of national missile defense, an independent panel has concluded that a country like Iran, Iraq or North Korea might be able to develop a long-range ballistic missile capability fairly quickly and clandestinely. The report criticizes the Clinton administration and the CIA for taking the position that we would have 15 years’ notice of any such development before it posed a direct threat to American territory.

The panel was led by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a Republican. But it was not dominated by hard-liners or by defense industry tycoons looking for an excuse to build a multibillion-dollar military boondoggle. Among its members were Barry Blechman, a former arms control official in the Carter administration and prominent defense reformer, as well as Richard Garwin, one of the country’s top experts on military technology and a chief critic of the Reagan administration’s “Star Wars” program.

The panel’s arguments were sound and convincing. For example, its report pointed out that the CIA was wrong to assume a potential adversary would undertake the same type of extensive and easily detectable missile testing program that we commonly do. Our test programs have been designed to assure that any missile would be reliable and highly accurate before being deployed. A rogue state seeking to threaten a major U.S. metropolitan area would not have the same requirements. As a result, we could be surprised.

In fact, we were just surprised—by Iran’s testing on July 22 of a medium-range missile that could reach Israel. Last year, the CIA considered Iran years away from having such a capability. The CIA revised its estimate earlier this year—but hardly in enough time to build a defense against the missile. Fortunately, this one cannot reach U.S. shores. But the next one could.

The Rumsfeld report should cause arms control advocates to rethink their positions. Since the days of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition, many have believed that missile defenses are destabilizing. Their logic was compelling during the Cold War. At that time, wide-scale deployment of rudimentary missile defenses would have done more to provoke even greater buildups of offensive forces than to provide real security. As a result, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was signed in 1972, helping make possible the SALT and START treaties to reduce strategic nuclear arms. But times have changed.

Missile defense opponents, most of them Democrats, are also wrong to make a big deal of the missile defense price tag. Sure, it would be expensive. But even if a small defense cost $50 billion to build over a five-year period, it would constitute only 4% of the defense budget during that time. We spend three to five times as much preparing to help defend South Korea against the atrophying North Korean military; surely it is acceptable to spend a much more modest sum countering a direct (if still hypothetical) threat to the United States, even if we need to tap into some of the growing federal surplus to do so.

However, many Republicans on Capitol Hill who would like to use this report to criticize the president and justify a rapid missile defense deployment are wrong, too. My Brookings colleague Stephen Schwartz described their position as a “field of dreams” attitude—if we build it, it will work. Unfortunately, hitting a missile with a missile is extraordinarily difficult. Anyone who doubts this fact need only note that the system now under development, designed to destroy shorter-range missiles that are much slower and thus easier to destroy than the intercontinental variety, has failed five tests in a row. Another independent commission warned earlier this year that, in our haste to develop missile defense technologies, we should avoid a “rush to failure.” Money and rhetoric cannot produce a solution to the missile defense problem anymore than they can guarantee a cure for AIDS or cancer.

So everyone’s wrong. Where does this leave us? Unfortunately, that is the harder question. Step No. 1, however, is recognizing just that—we have no easy answers.

Second, we should be willing to deploy a small nationwide defense when it becomes feasible. We should do so even if it requires amendment or abrogation of the 1972 ABM treaty and even if doing so causes some tension in relations with Russia.

And third, we should take other steps to make sure that Russia’s counterreactions to any missile deployment do not worsen our security in other ways. That means taking our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert so that Russia will be more willing to do so as well.

Perhaps most of all, it means precluding any consideration of NATO membership for the Baltic states in the near term. A strategically paranoid Russia will not be willing to take its own missiles off alert, implement the START II treaty, continue cooperative work to make nuclear materials in Russia secure or otherwise improve nuclear safety. It would be foolish to let our solution to one problem make an even more serious one worse.