Global Policy Forum

Nuclear Umbrella? The Peril of Missile Defense


By William A. Cohn *

Information Clearing House
October 12, 2006

As North Korea has now exploded a nuclear weapon we are being told once again that missile defense is imperative. 2006 will likely see the US expand its National Missile Defense (NMD) program to Central Europe. This proposed first overseas missile site in NMD and the revival of NMD itself is troubling. The basic questions remain: Does missile defense work? And, more importantly, does it make us more, or less, safe?

The 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) Treaty held that in the nuclear age missile defense threatens peace and survival. President Reagan's 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative was referred to as Star Wars because it was widely perceived as far-fetched. President Clinton concluded that NMD violated ABM and was technologically infeasible. Most recently, defense secretary Rumsfeld revived NMD spending by raising alarms about the need to defend against Iranian and North Korean missile threats.

Today, NMD relies upon ground-based hit-to-kill interceptor missiles, which aim to destroy incoming long-range ballistic missiles by colliding with them head-on. Critics assert that NMD creates false security and added risk, does not work in achieving its stated aims (noting a poor hit-to-kill test record), and is misplaced because the long-range missile threat is overstated.

The scientific community has spoken out against missile defense. US Physicists released a 2003 report of the American Physical Society finding NMD technically infeasible. Following a recent test-failure, a co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) concluded "It's clear that the program is being pushed ahead for political reasons regardless of its capability." (Tom Reagan, "Star Wars missile defense system fails again," The Christian Science Monitor, 2-15-05). The 2004 UCS report Technical Realities finds that missile defense has "no demonstrated defensive capability and will be ineffective against a real attack by long-range ballistic missiles."

In 1998 Donald Rumsfeld chaired a panel which Congress directed to assess the ballistic missile threat to the US. The Rumsfeld Commission resuscitated NMD by asserting that "rouge states" could acquire ballistic missiles within 5 years, not the 10-15 years stated in prior intelligence estimates. But analysts now agree that rogue-states and non-state terrorists would likely use short-range attacks, not long-range ballistic missiles. The ballistic missile threat is seemingly decreasing. NMD, however, does nothing to stop short-range missiles and other more genuine threats. Rumsfeld's five-year estimate and recommendations were based in part on briefings from the main US missile defense contractors now working on NMD – Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Despite spending more than $100 billion since 1983, the US still has not shown that missile defense can work. Test results have been mixed at best. Missile defense simply cannot guarantee that all incoming warheads will be destroyed. Rather, it provides false security emboldening decision-makers to pursue preemptive and other risky and provocative military interventions in the world – even contemplation of ‘limited nuclear strikes'.

The once vigorous public debate over missile defense receded in late 2001 when President Bush withdrew the US from the 1972 ABM treaty claiming it "prevents us from developing effective defenses". Indeed, ABM constrained deployment of missile defense systems (including the development of sea, air, mobile land and space-based systems) precisely because such systems undermine nuclear deterrence.

The prevailing wisdom during the Cold War was that nobody would attempt a nuclear strike because it would prompt a counterstrike – the resulting mutual assured destruction (MAD) providing an effective deterrent to use of nuclear weapons. A small minority argued that (a la Dr. Strangelove) they could survive a nuclear attack and emerge victorious. They were called nuclear utilization theorists (NUTs). Today, Star Wars advocates place faith and resources in shield protection against missiles (SPAM). Can missile defense really intercept cruise missiles and other ground-hugging and laser guided projectiles let alone conventional missiles? Given the propaganda for missile defense it seems we are being SPAMMED into becoming NUTS rather than MAD.

Russian President Putin warned that US ABM withdrawal undermined arms control and threatened a new arms race. Russia, however, has not followed the US lead. Russian and Chinese officials reportedly do not perceive a need to develop missile defense systems because they are confident that such systems simply do not work.

The US will spend some $9 billion this year to develop ballistic missile defenses, with $9.3 billion slated for next year. Total US military spending exceeds half a trillion dollars for 2006. The September 16, 2006 International Herald Tribune reports that the US now spends more on its military than does the rest of the world combined.

32 key Bush administration appointees are former top defense contractor insiders. One analyst concludes that the resurgence of missile defense "has been politically driven, spurred on by the missile defense lobby, which is thoroughly entrenched in the Bush Administration." (Michelle Ciarrocca, "Missile defense all over again,", October 2004). The past 6 years have certainly been lucrative for military contractors – since 2003 the stock value of Lockheed Martin has doubled while General Dynamics' and Boeing's have each tripled.

The reported successful test of a nuclear weapon by North Korea will no doubt be used in order to push forward with US missile defense installations in Europe which are seen as defending against missiles from Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang. Missile defense, however, is but a costly distraction from the needed work towards nuclear disarmament. The international arms control regime is based on the premise that we are more secure taking steps to get rid of nuclear weapons rather than trying to defend against them. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) mandates "general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." Thus, non-nuclear weapons states forego pursuit of nuclear weapons because nuclear weapons states work towards nuclear disarmament. The fulfillment of this "grand bargain" requires good faith implementation of NPT's disarmament protocols. The threat posed by rogue states is best addressed by strenuously supporting NPT and backing the efforts of IAEA inspectors empowered to verify NPT compliance.

North Korea's explosion of a nuclear bomb should give us pause to consider how the international community best prevents radioactive lunacy. The Non-Proliferation and Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaties as well as a new treaty replacing ABM should be re-emphasized and supported. The simple truth is, despite massive spending, we cannot shield ourselves against a proliferation of nuclear and other missiles. Failure to support international arms control efforts in favor of the pursuit of unilateralist military solutions is misguided at best. The true cost of missile defense may prove unimaginable.

About the Author: William A. Cohn, a member of the California and International Bar Associations, is lecturer at the University of New York in Prague where he teaches and writes on law, ethics and logic. He holds degrees from Stanford University in international relations and University of California in law. His treatise on international law was published in August by Eurozine. Other writings on law and public policy have been published in TransAfrica Forum, Hemispheres, The New Presence and The Prague Post (op-eds in the Post as Bill Cohn)

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