With the recent $823 million Boeing Co. Missile Defense System contract and Congressional approval of $9.1 billion for missile defense in the fiscal year 2004 budget, it appears that the construction of a National Missile Defense (NMD) system in the United States is now just a matter of time.
With a Pentagon-projected price tag of $50 billion over the next five years, one wonders whether such a system would be worth the cost and to what degree it would increase the security of the United States. Officials have given a variety of justifications for building an NMD system, ranging from scenarios of nuclear war with North Korea to a ballistic missile attack from a terrorist organization.
The efficacy of the proposed NMD system is called into serious question after examining its history of deficiencies. Replete with failed tests and unproven technology, the ground-based midcourse intercept system scheduled to be built in Alaska is doomed to fail. With a self-set deadline of October 2004, officials are scrambling to begin construction. To expedite the process, the Pentagon has decided to use old satellites and to deploy radar systems without adequate testing.
It is absolutely necessary to test and modify these technologies, for hitting a supersonic projectile is by no means an easy task. When speaking about the feasibility of destroying missiles in flight, most policymakers seem to have in mind a false image close to Atari’s classic video game “Missile Command” — where stopping a nuclear missile is as easy as moving a cursor in its path. Even if general targeting obstacles can be overcome, there still exists the issues of debris, decoys and bad weather conditions — all impediments that have confused existing radars. Furthermore, successful tests of the system have been performed under impractical conditions: pre-programmed trajectories and targets, low speeds and low altitudes. If an attacker varied a missile’s velocity, sent out multiple warheads or decoys, or launched at night, an NMD system would be hard-pressed to neutralize those targets.
To this date, no government figure has given an adequate reason as to why deterrence policy is not enough to prevent a nuclear conflict in the future. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction has worked to preserve peace among the traditional nuclear rivals for the past half-century, even in the midst of more precarious situations than the current one. Assuming that North Korea or Iran (or any other newly United States-identified threat) gains the capability to strike U.S. soil, the threat of a devastating retaliatory strike by the United States would be more than enough to discourage such action.
The most recent, and arguably most important, threat to United States interests comes in the form of terrorism. In the rare instance that terrorists gain possession of a nuclear weapon, it is difficult to imagine the use of a ballistic missile. A terrorist organization would, most likely, employ a simpler and more discreet means of detonation, such as steering a boat into the harbor of a major city. More probable, however, is the non-nuclear detonation of radioactive material (i.e. a “dirty bomb”) on U.S. soil. Which of these attacks is more lethal is not important, but what is significant is to realize that an NMD system would do nothing to prevent these more plausible events from occurring.
Perhaps the strongest argument of NMD proponents is that while a system may not be successful 100 percent of the time, it may be successful part of the time. Why not proceed with construction so that there is at least a chance of stopping incoming attacks? The answer to this question is that there is a unique disadvantage to building a missile defense system: it would decrease the security of the United States. From a global perspective, it is easy to understand other countries’ reservations about a U.S. defense system. Deterrence prevents nuclear attack by threatening complete and utter retaliation; every player in the game essentially has a gun and does not fire at another player for fear of being shot in return. Thus, a stable balance results in which firearms are possessed but no casualties result. In a world where the United States builds a successful NMD system, the United States would possess both a gun and a bullet-proof vest, undermining deterrence. The international tension that would result could take form in refusal by other countries to cooperate on issues of non-proliferation and attempts to build new nuclear weapons in order to strengthen one’s deterrent.
In the midst of all its deficiencies and failures, a national missile defense may indeed have the chance of being successful for a fraction of the time. The central question we are faced with today is whether this chance of a solution is worth the hefty price tag of an NMD system or the dangerous risk of international instability that it would bring. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that National Missile Defense is misguided.
Howard Kim is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College