F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
April 16, 2000
Missile Defense, Before It's Too Late

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

The vulnerability of our nation to ballistic missile attack is finally being addressed, but will a defense system be put in place in time?

"The United States is moving toward deployment of a system of interceptor missiles and sensors designed to protect all fifty states from long-range ballistic missile attack," reports Keith Payne of the National Institute for Public Policy. "Such a system, now called National Missile Defense (NMD), has been the subject of fierce debate in Washington since the 1960s, and until very recently its opponents always prevailed," Payne laments. "Several developments have converged to garner the support of the majority in Congress and to overcome the Clinton Administration's opposition," he observes. "These developments include the changed nature of the ballistic missile threat, corresponding changes in American goals and NMD technical requirements, movement in U.S. thinking about the effectiveness of deterrence for protecting the country against missile threats, and serious reconsideration of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. . . ."

Writing in the current issue of Orbis, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Payne argues that "the current ballistic missile threat is not remotely comparable to that posed by the Soviet Union. The emerging missile threat now comes from 'rogues' such as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran," he asserts, "whose arsenals are orders of magnitude smaller than the Soviets'. The threat those countries' missiles will pose," Payne points out, "has intensified interest in National Missile Defense. At the same time, the relatively modest size of that threat has eased past concerns about NMD cost and technical feasibility."

Payne believes that "a new perspective on the reliability of deterrence has helped to move Washington toward a consensus on NMD." He recalls that "part of American strategic culture for decades has been overconfidence in Washington's capability to deter attack. Although such overconfidence in deterrence is folly," he affirms, "it has until recently been a matter of unchallenged wisdom: why defend when you can reliably deter? Fortunately," Payne opines, "the Gulf War and various post-Cold War crises with Iraq, Serbia, North Korea, and China have served to dampen past overconfidence in deterrence, making NMD more appealing militarily and politically. Government reports increasingly acknowledge that deterrence of post-Cold War challengers may simply fail," he says, "in which case the United States must be able to protect itself."

Payne emphasizes that "a consensus in favor of NMD deployment has been established, after so many years of intense debate and opposition, because of a complex mixture of changes in the international security environment and in American domestic opinion. While that consensus appears relatively stable," he warns, "the prospect for limited NMD deployment could still be temporarily derailed by an overly solicitous attitude toward Moscow (or Beijing), or by some spectacular failure of NMD technology. Even so," Payne concludes, "the pace of proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction shows no sign oabating, and few [analysts] continue to view deterrence as a reliable response to the threat." The only question is whether or not National Missile Defense will be deployed "in time to meet the coming threats."