By Flora LewisMissile defense: cold warriors prolong nuclear menace
Paris, Friday, April 28, 2000
PARIS - The political pressure to accelerate building an American defense against missiles from "rogue states" like North Korea or Iraq is growing intense once again. It is a political issue, not really about security because military logic cannot justify a decision to deploy a weapon before knowing whether it will work and whether the threat is real.
In her new book "Way Out There in the Blue," Frances Fitzgerald reports that $60 billion has already been spent on the effort, and congressional experts estimate that plans for completion could run to another $30 billion. This is for only a "limited" defense against a few missiles, a very modest version of President Ronald Reagan's "star wars" program, which was abandoned because of grave doubts about its feasibility but a certainty of humongous cost.
The new strategic anti-missile has had only two full tests. One failed. The other was said to work, although of course test conditions were as favorable as possible. But already conservative arguments for abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty if Moscow refuses to change it include a demand to preserve the possibility of a full star wars-type national defense in the future.
There are so many different reasons to oppose this frenetic techno-fantasy that the real question is why the advocates are pushing it so hard.
In addition to the effectiveness question, scientists point out that if it can work it would be easy to counteract, allies worry that it would undermine America's will to come to their defense if the United States felt that it was guaranteed safety against missiles, and Russia says that if the ABM Treaty is dumped by the United States, that would invalidate the whole fabric of arms control agreements.
The pretense that the treaty is obsolete because it was signed with the Soviet Union, which no longer exists, is particularly perverse. Russia accepted formal responsibility for all Soviet international obligations, and if Washington says this does not apply to this one treaty, then all the huge complex of U.S.-Russian agreements is in danger.
This time the insistence on early deployment sounds a lot more sober than the video game cartoons and promise of endless science-based wealth used to promote the star wars campaign, but essentially there is not much difference. There is now an evident nostalgia for a Cold War stance of superiority, and a desire to continue building weapons.
That was an element in the Senate's refusal to ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and keep open the possibility of making more weapons despite U.S. commitments in the nonproliferation treaty to work for nuclear disarmament.
In a recent statement by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Moscow even offered a joint program with the United States for global control of missile proliferation, and cooperation on building "nonstrategic missile defenses." That would refer to what is called theater defense, such as the United States is now building with Israel, or other advances on the Patriot anti-missile, but not a challenge to long-range missiles on which both the United States and Russia place primary reliance for their deterrents.
Russian ratification at last of the START-2 arms reduction treaty, and eagerness to begin work on a START-3 accord that would cut arsenals down to 1,500 warheads on each side from the crazy overkill of the present, is indeed good news that should be acted on quickly.
One reason it has been so hard to reverse the arms race is American espousal of MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles) in the 1970s. That put up to a dozen separate warheads on a single missile.
It was promoted as a marvelous way to swamp opposing force, and what were called "bean counters" worked furiously to develop theoretical "kill ratios." Of course, the Russians did the same. But then Washington suddenly realized that a single incoming warhead could destroy the whole cluster, making the deterrent that much more vulnerable.
When MIRVs came to be seen as a disadvantage, Henry Kissinger, who had promoted the strategy, said simply, "We didn't think that one through as well as we should have."
That certainly applies to what is going on now. There seems to be a feeling that if the Russians are so opposed to missile defense, it must be a good thing for the United States, regardless of actual consequences.
It is forgotten that the ABM Treaty was an American idea, pushed against initially intense Russian resistance to limits on anything but offensive missiles. Washington finally convinced Moscow that offense and defense were inextricably related, and Russia signed in 1972.
There is such a surrealistic quality to the argument against the ABM Treaty now that it is hard to advance cold common sense. But if we really do want to get rid of the nuclear menace inherited from the Cold War, it is cold sense and not sci-fi scenarios that we need.