Star Wars, Episode Two
With the Soviet Union gone, the nuclear threat is from 'rogue nations'
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Seventeen years after President Ronald Reagan first proposed a national missile defense system and nearly 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the costly and controversial idea is back on Washington's agenda.
A national missile defense system has both Republican and Democratic support. Congress passed a bill last year that said the United States' official policy is to have a national missile defense and President Bill Clinton signed that bill into law.
But doubts remain over the program, which is projected to cost $60 billion and has failed two out of three tests.
Supporters say a missile shield is needed to protect the United States from terrorists and rogue states like North Korea that are trying to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach the United States.
"There is still a threat in the world," said Brian Kennedy, vice president of the Claremont Institute, a California-based conservative think tank.
While Russia is not as much of a threat, Kennedy said it still has a massive nuclear arsenal that it is modernizing in a somewhat uncertain political and economic environment. China is an emerging superpower that is building nuclear weapons and selling defense technology, while smaller nations like North Korea and Iran also are trying to build nuclear weapons and the missiles that could reach the United States, he said.
During the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union had built up vast nuclear arsenals, the threat of massive retaliation prevented either country from launching a first strike, a concept known as "mutually assured destruction."
But Kennedy said it is unclear whether traditional deterrence will work with nations like North Korea.
"We take the view that retaliation is not a sensible alternative," he said. "We have the technology to actually stop a missile attack. Why not deploy that?"
But opponents of a missile shield say such a shield would be an inefficient defense that is too expensive and could spark a new arms race. Critics also note that a missile shield would not protect the country from chemical or biological attack.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) calls himself a skeptic on missile defense, but not an opponent. In a speech earlier this year, Biden said that a single-minded push toward a missile defense system would likely cause Russia and China to increase their nuclear forces and undermine U.S. influence with its allies.
"The problem with a national missile defense, aside from the fact that it's never as easy to achieve as its supporters claim, is how to deploy it without sacrificing other interests that we value greatly," he said.
John Pike, a policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, is more blunt. National missile defense is a "solution in search of a problem," he said.
So far, Pike said, $75 billion has been spent on research with nothing to show for it. Some have compared missile defense to stopping a bullet with a bullet but Pike said it's more like "stopping a shotgun blast with a shotgun blast."
"Can it be done? Yes. Can it be done reliably? Apparently not," he said.
A new arms race?
Critics also say a new arms race would be the result of a missile defense system, this time with China, India, Pakistan and other countries trying to become nuclear powers.
"The Red Chinese don't want to be in the situation where we can blow them up and they can't blow us up," Pike said. "They'll build how ever many missiles it takes just to make sure that we run out of interceptors before we run out of H-bombs. They're a big country and don't want to get pushed around by America."
Pike said the Chinese believe the national missile defense system is being built with them in mind and are currently in the process of building a new generation of missiles. And if the Chinese build up their nuclear arsenal, Pike said India and Pakistan are likely to follow.
But Kennedy said it is doubtful to think a new arms race will follow the deployment of a missile defense system. The arms race bankrupted the Soviet Union and would likely do the same to China. China's communist economic system can't compete with the economy of the United States.
"(An arms race) will bankrupt their country, and I think the communist leaders in Beijing know that," he said. "That's one reason they don't want a missile defense because if they do try to build up their offensive forces, it will bankrupt and the kind of reforms we see in China today will only become more rapid, I think."
According to Kennedy, China's growing middle class and its less militaristic younger leaders are likely to focus on building the country into an economic power and won't tolerate a Soviet-style military buildup.
"Yes, they could build up their military more and there's every indication that they are doing that today," Kennedy said. "In the future, can they afford to do that?"
Kennedy said the U.S. should continue to encourage peaceful, democratic changes in places like Russia, China and North Korea while developing a national missile defense system.
"We don't want a missile defense so we can destroy North Korea," he said. "We want a missile defense so that North Korea and South Korea can develop peacefully with one another and discourage the most militaristic elements within North Korea from believing that they can take by force what could otherwise be done through peaceful negotiations."
Origins of missile defense
The idea of modern-day missile defense began with Reagan's proposal in 1983 of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which quickly became known as "Star Wars." SDI focused on ground- and space-based systems that would fire lasers at incoming missiles to destroy them.
Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had performed some research into missile defense before SDI. But the two counties also signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, which limited the number of defensive missiles each country could deploy in hopes of slowing the build-up of nuclear arms.
Critics said SDI could violate the ABM treaty and Reagan came under criticism for escalating the arms race. But some credit the SDI initiative for hastening the end of the Cold War by giving the Russians the impression that the U.S. defense program was revitalized.
SDI faced many technological obstacles and a 1988 congressional report said it was likely suffer a "catastrophic failure" in its "first (and presumably) only use." Reagan and other Republicans said the report proved the need for more research funding but others said the research should be scaled back to focus on ground-based systems.
Responding to the collapse of the Soviet Union, President George Bush announced in 1991 that the Defense Department was refocusing the SDI program from its emphasis on defending against a massive Soviet missile attack to a system aimed at protecting against limited missile attacks. There were three main components to the new system: a ground-based National Missile Defense (NMD), a ground-based Theater Missile Defense (TMD) and a Space-Based Global Defense.
In 1993, the Clinton administration announced that research would continue into creating a ground-based missile defense system by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), a wing of the Defense Department.
The current research focuses on theater missile defense systems aimed at protecting troops at war, a national missile defense system and support systems. The BMDO's budget was $4.17 billion in 1999.
The issue began to resurface when House Republicans included missile defense as a part of their "Contract with America" in 1994. In 1996, a bipartisan commission was created by the Republican-controlled Congress to investigate outside threats to the United States.
The commission, headed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, released a report in July 1998 that said within five years, Iran and North Korea would have the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles against the United States.
The Clinton administration downplayed the report. But in August 1998, North Korea tested a three-stage rocket, catching the U.S. intelligence community by surprise. The North Koreans said the test was a failed attempt to launch a communications satellite. But the test suggested that North Korea had the capacity to create three-stage solid-fuel rockets that have the ability to reach the west coast of the U.S.
1998 also saw Iran test the Shahab-3 missile, which has the range to reach all of Israel. India and Pakistan also tested nuclear weapons for the first time that year, catching the world by surprise.
The events came as President Bill Clinton was facing a deadline over whether to implement a missile defense system. In September 2000, after the proposed system failed a third test, Clinton announced that he would delay the deployment of a missile defense system to his successor.
Clinton said that a missile defense system might lead to increased nuclear arms proliferation in China, Pakistan and India, but added that "the next president may nevertheless decide that our interests in security in the 21st century dictate that we go forward with deployment" of the national missile defense system.
Clinton was criticized by Republicans for his decision. "Despite the rhetoric, this president and vice president just don't support defending America's people," said U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania), the point man for House Republicans on the issue.
More research or a mirage?
The third test of the system failed in July when a U.S. "hit-to-kill" weapon did not separate from its booster rocket and intercept a dummy warhead over the Pacific Ocean. The first test of the system was successful but the second test failed.
The Pentagon remains optimistic about the system. Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, the BMDO director, told a House of Representatives subcommittee in September that 93 percent of the system's "critical engagement functions" has been proven to work properly.
Weldon viewed the failure of the third test as reason for more research, noting it was the third of 19 planned tests.
"Rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran are not abandoning their efforts to obtain the capability to strike American cities -- so this test should in no way deter our efforts to defend ourselves," Weldon said in a statement. "As in the past, the Pentagon will learn from the information and data gathered during this test, making further improvements and fine-tuning our technology."
But Pike says missile defense is unlikely ever to work successfully and knock down every missile launched toward the United States.
"It's a mirage," he said. "We never get any closer to it. It's always out there, shimmering in the desert."
Research will continue, Pike said, because defense contractors and their supporters in Congress want to keep the money flowing. The price tag the Clinton administration has put on a missile system is $60 billion and that is in addition to the research money already spent. Pike said the money spent on missile defense is the equivalent of the Manhattan Project and the stealth bomber.
"That's good work if you can get it," he said.
But Kennedy said the Clinton administration has not been committed enough to missile defense and has been cutting corners. With adequate funding, he said, a workable system can be built.
"When the American scientific community puts its mind to something, it tends to do it," he said.
Kennedy also said the cost is not that expensive, relative to the annual defense budget of roughly $300 billion.
Clinton's successor is likely to be either Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP presidential nominee. Bush condemned Clinton's decision, characterizing it as evidence of failed leadership on national security issues and reiterating that if elected president he would deploy a missile defense "at the earliest possible date."
Bush hasn't indicated what kind of missile defense he would advocate, but in the past he has said he favored a system that could defend not only the United States but also its allies. The administration and many private defense experts say that approach would take longer to deploy than the current plan.
Gore supports developing the technology for a limited missile defense system to protect all 50 states from a missile attack but without harming progress made on arms control with countries like Russia.
He said Clinton's decision provided needed time for more thorough testing of technologies. "I welcome the opportunity to be more certain that these technologies actually work together properly," Gore said.
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