WASHINGTON -- Proponents of national missile defense are
urging President-elect George W. Bush to move quickly to
deploy a system to protect the United States against
potential ballistic missile attacks from Iraq, Iran, North Korea and China.
They argue that he will make a major mistake if he lets his
administration subject missile defense to a lengthy policy
review. It will give opponents time to organize and
inevitably entangle the issue in the 2002 congressional
elections. Instead of waiting, Mr. Bush should seize the moment.
Mr. Bush could move ahead quickly and adopt the Clinton
administration's missile defense deployment schedule, which
proposes beginning construction of a key radar in Alaska
next year. If Moscow refused to revise the ABM Treaty to
permit a nationwide defense, the United States could then
withdraw from the treaty. Although a momentous step, Mr.
Bush could argue that he was merely following Bill Clinton's
lead, and he might pick up Democratic votes in Congress as a
result. By making deployment seem inevitable, Mr. Bush might
overwhelm the domestic political opposition in the short term.
But from a longer-term perspective, rapid deployment is a
bad idea. It could leave the United States with a mediocre
missile defense, strained relations with most European
allies and major problems with Moscow -- not to mention
Beijing. American national security could suffer,
particularly if a brusque defensive deployment led Moscow to
terminate bilateral programs to secure its frighteningly
dilapidated inventory of nuclear warheads and materials.
Such an outcome would eventually fracture whatever domestic
political support for missile defense the Bush
administration had enjoyed.
Rather than moving quickly on missile defense, Mr. Bush
should move sensibly. He should remain unwavering in his
commitment to defending the United States.
But he does not need to commit immediately to a specific
technology or to take steps that would violate the ABM
Treaty until 2002, or perhaps even 2003. He has time to
proceed deliberately for four reasons:
- The threat is limited. Only Russia and China currently
threaten the United States with long-range missiles, and
both could almost surely counter any defense now on the
drawing boards. The threat from North Korea, Iran and Iraq
is still probably several years off, or even longer. We
should move purposefully on national missile defense, not hurriedly.
- The Pentagon needs time to research other technologies. The
Clinton administration focused its efforts on developing a
system to shoot down warheads in space. That poses a
daunting technological challenge, as per the system's two recent test failures.
The Pentagon has not adequately investigated other
technologies, most notably boost-phase interceptors. These
would shoot down enemy missiles before they reached space,
when they were easy to locate and when they presented large
targets. Besides being less technologically challenging than
a Clinton-style system, boost-phase defenses are also far
less vulnerable to countermeasures.
It is not difficult, especially for a major country such as
Russia or China, to build decoys that resemble actual
warheads in the vacuum of space. But it's hard to hide or
protect large, burning intercontinental rockets. Boost-phase
defenses based on land, sea or air are also less likely to
provoke Moscow. They must be based within a few hundred
miles of the enemy missile launch point; hence, they cannot
shoot down missiles launched from Russia's interior.
- The Bush administration needs time to negotiate changes to
the ABM Treaty. Persuading Moscow to revise that 1972 treaty
to permit nationwide missile defense is far preferable to
abandoning it. Withdrawal would harm U.S.-Russian relations
-- especially efforts to reduce and secure offensive nuclear arms in both countries.
Even if Moscow says nyet in the end and the United States
must withdraw, intensive negotiations would do more to
assuage Moscow's worst-case security fears and to secure
allied support for deploying a national missile defense than
a capricious decision to abandon the treaty. But knowing in
advance that Mr. Bush was firmly committed to deployment,
and that he was also considering boost-phase defenses,
Moscow might well agree to revise the treaty rather than
face the prospect of unconstrained American national missile defenses.
- The Bush administration should work to find a way to defend
the allies, too. The Clinton administration's proposed
anti-missile system would protect the United States but not
its allies. But leaving the allies unprotected seriously
diminishes the system's strategic benefit. Saddam Hussein
could blackmail us by threatening to destroy Paris or London
or Tokyo -- including the thousands of Americans living
there -- instead of New York or San Francisco.
Proponents of national missile defense are right that a Bush
administration should be unyielding in its commitment to
defend America. But that does not require immediate
treaty-busting actions that favor unpromising defensive
technologies. Acting resolutely should not mean rushing to failure.
James Lindsay and Michael O'Hanlon are senior fellows at the Brookings Institution.