Missile-Defense Chimera

Stephen I. Schwartz

With all due respect to former ambassador James Lilley—who is quoted in the Oct. 23 wire service story “CIA Rates `Low’ the Risk of Unauthorized Use of Russian Nuclear Warheads”—the leaking of a top-secret CIA report describing increasing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Russia’s control of its nuclear arsenal does not reinforce “the urgent need for a missile defense to be put in place as soon as possible.”

Deployment of a nationwide ballistic-missile defense system cannot be accomplished until at least 2003. (Many of the components have yet to be fully designed, let alone tested.) Even then, such a system would do nothing to counter the threat of nuclear attack from other sources, such as airplanes, cruise missiles, ships and trucks. It is worth noting that the CIA report deemed “most at risk” the control of Russian tactical nuclear weapons—i.e., those not delivered atop ballistic missiles.

Rather than calling for the deployment of a system that—even if it works perfectly—cannot eliminate the risk of a nuclear launch against the United States, we should augment our efforts to assist Russia in securing its arsenal and nuclear materials. We could do this, for example, by increasing funding for the bipartisan Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. (In the recently enacted fiscal year 1997 defense budget, Congress appropriated $3.9 billion for missile defense while providing just $566 million for the CTR program.)

We also should work harder to secure Russian ratification of the START II treaty and begin negotiations on accords to take all nuclear weapons off alert and physically separate warheads from delivery vehicles. Such measures—which require only political will to succeed—will do more to destroy these weapons and diminish the risk (and consequences) of accidental or unauthorized launch than any proposed missile-defense system.