Just after the Independence Day celebrations last year, the world focused its attention on our western skies, anticipating an impressively choreographed, albeit extremely costly, fireworks display from the U.S. military. However, the July 7 performance left many spectators with the impression that they had witnessed a $100 million dud. Recently confirmed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, far from being discouraged by this second failed feasibility test of the Clinton administration’s land-based national missile defense program, has reiterated his determination to proceed with plans for a missile shield.
The July 7 test deployed a Minuteman II missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base and a missile interceptor fired from the Marshall Islands. The interceptor was supposed to destroy the mock warhead mid-flight – somewhat analogous to a bullet fired from one gun intercepting and destroying a bullet fired from another gun. However, the interceptor failed to hit its target, even though the last test was "dumbed down" after criticism that the first two were overly complex. Pentagon officials disclosed that three malfunctions occurred in this failed test, one of which constituted a breakdown in one of the system’s simplest components.
Scientific opinion is divided over whether it is even possible for this $60 billion program to achieve its proposed objective: to protect the U.S. from limited attack by foreign powers and terrorist factions. With only the first experiment resulting in a partial success and 16 more tests planned, there are serious concerns about the workability, let alone the diplomatic wisdom, of this exorbitant heir to Reagan’s "Star Wars" legacy.
While Clinton decided to defer the construction of this land-based program, Rumsfeld’s latest comments at a weekend conference in Germany suggest that a missile shield is not only a possibility, it is an inevitability. Even more concerning is that Republicans are divided as to whether the land-based shield is sufficient. Some GOP leaders advocate a more elaborate space or sea-based program.
The jury is still out on whether technology is advanced enough to create a working land-based missile shield; perhaps we should hold off on construction of a fully operational Death Star. While feasibility and overall cost are serious considerations, more important is whether the overseas threat to national security is real and significant enough to warrant this action.
Erratic nations such as North Korea appear to be the primary source of concern. However, North Korea has been observing a ban on long-range missile tests since last fall, and other unstable countries like Iran and Iraq are far from intercontinental missile capability. Both China and Russia have expressed fears that their current nuclear arsenal could be rendered useless by this project – refueling the arms race. International perception is a relevant consideration. Irrespective of whether the project is a defensive maneuver by the U.S., it is likely to appear aggressive to other countries. Many of our allies oppose construction of this shield on the grounds that it threatens existing international arms control treaties, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Condoleeza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, said in a statement Sunday that the U.S. should not be constrained by the limitations of the ABM Treaty. This echoes Secretary of State Colin Powell’s sentiments regarding a new doctrine of "exceptionalism" that should exempt the U.S. from certain treaty requirements due to its political and moral superiority. Quoted Powell, "[The U.S.] has to be given a pass on norms it proscribes for others, such as testing nuclear weapons or preemptive military strikes."
Rumsfeld dismissed arms race concern as a relic of the Cold War. Funny, it seems that this newly resurrected "Star Wars" program could also be described as a relic of the Cold War. Furthermore, if a country or rogue militia wants to target the U.S., will this shield really save lives? No technological marvel can foresee terrorist bombing attacks within our borders.
A protective bubble placed over the U.S. may help GOP leaders sleep better at night, but will it really provide any more security for the average American? If the U.S. chooses to ignore its obligations to international treaties and the growing concern from foreign nations, it will be trading global nuclear stability for a $60 billion political placebo.