nthposition online magazine

Kill missile defence now

by Ivan Eland

[ opinion - december 04 ]

The most recent among many testing glitches of the Bush administration missile defence program should remind us that this exorbitant and heavily politicised effort should be scrapped. Until September 11, in the eyes of conservatives, the litmus test for patriotism was support for missile defence. Now they have moved on to view backing for the troubled Iraq War as the badge of armchair courage. Yet the 9/11 attacks demonstrated that the missile defence program did not address the most severe threats facing the United States.

The most serious threats to the US homeland won't arrive by missile. They'll likely be attacks using either conventional means - as on 9/11 - or nuclear, biological or chemical weapons smuggled into the country by ship or delivered by small aircraft. Terrorists are unlikely to have the technology to develop the long-range missiles that a missile defence system is designed to intercept using other missiles or lasers.

Missile defence could be a back-up in case deterrence fails against rogue states, such as Iran or North Korea, that have both long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs. Nuclear deterrence usually works against even radical states because, unlike terrorists, they have a home address that can be incinerated with the large and powerful US nuclear arsenal. Alternatively, missile defences could act as a shield in the unlikely event of an accidental nuclear launch from one of those nations. But missile defence systems are very complex and expensive to build. In fact, missile defence is the most complicated weapon system ever designed by man. The US government has had a few successful test intercepts, but these tests did not resemble actual battle conditions and were rigged for success. In the most recent failed test, the interceptor missile could not even get off the ground. Furthermore, hitting a missile with another missile ("hitting a bullet with a bullet") is not the toughest aspect of development - the biggest challenge is integrating the interceptors, sensors, and battle management computers.

The Missile Defense Agency has spent $80 billion since 1985 and has very little to show for it. Over the next five years, the US government will dump another $50 billion into missile defence programs. Yet rogue states probably will be able to come up with cheap countermeasures to foil costly defensive systems.

Although the Pentagon claims the systems will defend against potential missile attacks from Iran and North Korea, some conservatives have the hidden agenda of using them to counter China. China now has only about 20 ageing long-range missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads to the United States. Unlike the relatively poor rogue states, however, wealthy China - which already has programs to modernise such missiles - could simply build more offensive missiles to overwhelm the defences. In fact, the conservative fable - that is, during the later years of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program struck so much fear into the hearts of the Soviets that it helped collapse the East bloc - was belied by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's dismissal of Reagan's dream by saying that he could build offensive missiles faster and more cheaply than the United States could build pricey missile defences. Today's missile defence programs are a mere shadow of Reagan's scheme, and Russia can already saturate even the most ambitious of them with thousands of long-range missiles.

So if missile defences don't counter the greatest threats and are not cost-effective why are the Bush administration and its conservative allies so gung ho on them? The answer is primarily politics. Even after a failed test in December 2002, President Bush, for electoral purposes, ordered the premature initial activation of a rudimentary system by September 2004 (which is running many months behind schedule because of development problems and scrapped tests). Although Reagan's Star Wars program was grandiose and a financial black hole for taxpayers, many conservatives have used modern-day missile defence programs to rally the faithful around their hero's legacy. At every turn, President Bush compares himself to Reagan, and the continuance of missile defence has been a concrete manifestation of that phenomenon.

But, these days, instead of vanquishing incoming missiles, too many conservative pundits are intent on destroying new monsters - terrorists and Iraqi guerrillas. Winning one for the Gipper is no longer needed to fire up conservatives. The Bush administration should take advantage of that to reduce the yawning budget deficit by killing the grotesquely wasteful missile defence programs.