Strategic Weapons: February 6, 2001

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: Despite statements by foreign leaders such as British Prime Minister Blair, and threats by Russian President Putin and by Chinese officials, the US is going to build a missile defense system regardless of what anyone thinks about it or what the ABM Treaty may or may not say in its vague clauses on new technology. In July of 1998 a bipartisan committee of experts announced that foreign nations were working hard to build missiles that could hit the US, and that they were likely to succeed. Media commentators and Liberal apologists quickly denounced the panel's report as a "worst case scenario" but the panel insisted that the intelligence community's "most likely scenarios" were in fact wishful thinking. Six weeks later, on 31 Aug 1998, North Korea (bankrupt and starving) launched a Taepo Dong 1 missile with an unknown third stage, proving the panel right and the intelligence community wrong. Leaks immediately flowed from staffers in the CIA and DIA that they had long held the view that a missile threat was likely sooner rather than later, but that their politically-appointed bosses were rewriting their reports before releasing them. The panel (chaired by a once and future Secretary of Defense named Donald Rumsfeld) was proven right, and the debate was, for all practical purposes, over. The Clinton Administration moved forward (however hesitantly) on missile defense and Vice President Gore admitted that he would also pursue such a program. What remains is a debate over technology, timing, and cost. The old engineering proverb of "good, fast, cheap; pick two" applies. The existing system doesn't work, and it can either be deployed quickly and cheaply and still not work, or slowly and cheaply and work, or quickly and expensively and work. The new Bush theory is that Europe, China, and Russia will not negotiate a new nuclear and missile technology "world order" until they realize that the US is going to build a defense system no matter what they say, threaten, or do. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Powell negotiated arms deals with the Soviets, and say that the same rules apply to the Russians: they won't accept any arms deal until they are convinced that the US is about to walk away from the table and do whatever it wants to anyway. Bush has rejected the Clinton concept of a minimal system that would protect from a minimal threat and would require only minimal changes to the 1972 ABM Treaty. Bush is ready to scrap the treaty entirely if the Russians do not agree to serious revisions. Bush (and more importantly, his staff) perceive a new nuclear control regime based on a balance of offensive, defensive, and intelligence systems, a regime that would work even if some key nations refuse to join. Bush is convinced that a defensive system will cost the US less than it would cost the Chinese to build a corresponding offensive system or the Russians to salvage an overwhelming force out of the wreckage of their bankrupt military. The Russian nuclear missile arsenal will be down to 800 or fewer warheads by 2010, and they will never find the money to build a new generation of missiles that could penetrate a US defense. Bush is convinced that the Russians will join in a new control system (including joint efforts to stop the proliferation of missile and nuclear technology), but is frankly not concerned what might happen if the Russians decide not to. While China has threatened an arms race if the US deploys a missile defense, the Chinese would be starting from so far behind that they could never catch up and (if logic prevails in Beijing) won't even try. Despite all of this, deployment of an American missile system is years away, perhaps a decade. The current "earliest date" is mid-2005, and the "likely date" is mid-2007. But these dates are steadily slipping because the weapons simply do not work yet. New tests are needed, and without a lot of money to accelerate the test schedule (i.e., to keep it on track) it is most likely that the date will slip farther and farther into the future. Any serious analysis of recent trends puts the most realistic date as 2010, i.e., on the other side of two presidential elections.Stephen V Cole 

 


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