Star Wars Strikes Back

Michael O’Hanlon. Foreign Affairs. Volume 78, Issue 6, November/December 1999.

The Phantom Menace or a New Hope?

Star Wars the movie may have enjoyed a comeback this year. But inside the defense community, Star Wars never left us. Unfortunately, neither have the polemics surrounding it; missile defense remains as controversial as ever. That may not have mattered much in the past, when missile-defense technology was too immature to make deployment practical. But there could soon be real consequences if the debate remains mired in ideology.

To understand the arguments and the stakes involved, a few definitions are essential. Ballistic missile defenses fall into two main categories: theater and national, designed to intercept short-range and long-range missiles, respectively. The United States now deploys a version of theater missile defense (TMD)-the Patriot-but does not yet operate more advanced TMD systems or a national missile defense (NMD) of any kind.

TMD and NMD use similar technologies: satellite-based infrared sensors that detect and track missile launches, radar that follows incoming threats and guides interceptors to them, and the interceptor missiles themselves. Eventually both may also include airborne and space-based lasers–although such devices remain early in the laboratory stage today (a point recently reaffirmed by the Pentagon’s chief scientist and its director of testing). But the similarities between TMD and NMD end there. For while TMD enjoys wide support in the American policy debate, NMD (or strategic defense) remains hotly contentious.

The popularity of TMD stems from its role in the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam Hussein fired about go Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia during the war-killing 28 U.S. soldiers in their barracks near Dhahran and terrifying Israeli civilians. The early variant of the Patriot system deployed against him (designed more to shoot down airplanes than missiles) did not actually stop many Scuds. But it helped avert an Israeli retaliatory strike that might have fractured the U.S.-led coalition. The Patriot has been improved since the Gulf War, and is soon to be upgraded further. Other TMD programs are advancing, albeit in fits and starts, and their political support remains strong.

NMD, by contrast, remains technologically less developed and ideologically more fractured. Missile-defense enthusiasts, most of them Republicans, want above all else to protect America from direct attack. Arms controllers, most of them Democrats, consider reducing and securing nuclear armories and improving U.S.-Russian relations to be paramount, and worry that deployment of NMD would seriously threaten those goals. Each side voices valid concerns. But neither seems to acknowledge, or seriously wrestle with, the legitimate concerns of the other.

President Clinton has wisely tried to apply his instincts for finding a “third way” to resolve the controversy. In 1997, the administration devised an NMD-development program and then funded it robustlyadmittedly, after considerable congressional prodding. But while seeming to take initiative, the Clinton administration has actually passed the buck. Since NMD technology is not yet up to the job, deployment is out of the question; the administration has not actually had to do anything more than adopt the right rhetoric and fund research programs.

Yet the kind of solution to the NMD standoff that the next U.S. president might pursue is now becoming discernible. As defense proponents argue, some degree of nationwide protection does make strategic sense in the post-Cold War world. But as critics emphasize, the requisite technology may not be ready as soon as we would like and it will probably not work very well against some threats even when it is. Critics are also right that if such a system is ever deployed, every effort will have to be made to assuage Russian worries. That does not mean giving Moscow a veto over the system’s ultimate deployment. But it does mean limiting the size of the deployment and, if at all possible, trying to find an appropriate way to modify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty rather than just withdrawing from it. It may even mean steps like unilateral reductions in the size or alert levels of U.S. offensive nuclear forces, to bolster Russia’s confidence that America is not pursuing a strategic advantage at its expense and thereby to keep the process of reducing and securing the Russian nuclear arsenal on track.

In the charged world of American politics, unfortunately, pursuing such an agenda will not be easy. The ideological trenches are dug so deep that the two sides of the NMD debate will have a hard time climbing out to find common ground.

The (Not So) Great Debate

The debate over strategic missile defense may be polarized, but it is not mindless. Both sides marshal an impressive array of well-reasoned arguments to support their positions. But both are much better at advocating their own views than at listening to each other’s.

Missile-defense proponents are right about their major premise: The global missile threat to the United States is growing. The club of nations with ballistic missiles now includes about two dozen members. Just as worrying is the increasing range of these weapons. Exhibit A is North Korea. In the summer of 1998, it tested a multistage missile, the Taepo Dong 1. It is also working on a Taepo Dong 2 that, according to a recent U.S. intelligence report, might be able to strike the continental United States with a nuclear-weapon-size payload (if North Korea can make a three-stage version of the missile capable of surviving high-speed atmospheric reentry). These developments were threatening enough to help convince traditionally gun-shy Japan to enter into a TMD joint-research agreement with the United States in August 1999. The September decision by North Korea to stop testing in return for an easing of U.S. trade sanctions is encouraging but insufficient to deflate the fears it has created.

The 1998 North Korean test confirmed the findings of a congressionally mandated commission led by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. The commission report-published shortly before the Taepo Dong 1 overflew Japan and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean-concluded unanimously that countries such as North Korea, Iran, or Iraq might soon develop a missile that could threaten American territory. It also criticized the U.S. intelligence community, which had believed it would have at least a decade’s notice before any such threat could materialize. Rumsfeld’s report warned that missiles could appear in half that time or even sooner, since countries could do a good deal of their preliminary research in secret, conduct crash programs in missile testing (albeit at a price in missile capability and reliability), buy missiles from abroad, and threaten the United States with medium-range missiles launched from ships or the territories of U.S. neighbors.

Missile-defense supporters are also right to have profound doubts about the continued relevance of the ABM Treaty, at least in its current form. Signed in 1972, the treaty was the product of an age when the superpower arms race was out of control. Perceptions of nuclear advantage mattered much more then, and worst-case military analysis was so prevalent that deployment of even mediocre defenses might have provoked unchecked competition. Deployment of NMD was therefore prohibited, not because it was believed to be inherently bad, but because of the specific political and technological circumstances of the day. Those circumstances have now changed.

Defense proponents sometimes take this logic too far. Some argue, for example, that the treaty no longer has any bearing, since one of its original signatory states has now dissolved. That is a poor argument; the same reasoning would absolve Russia of the Soviet Union’s other international obligations, debts, and responsibilities in areas such as weapons nonproliferation. But NMD supporters are right to challenge the Cold War calculus nonetheless.

Unwilling to cede any ground, missile-defense skeptics offer three solid arguments in reply. They point out that although the Cold War is over, old arms-race dynamics die hard. Both Russia and the United States still maintain large and ready nuclear forces. One can argue that they should have shed their Cold War tastes for huge arsenals and strategic advantage by now-but the fact is that they have not. Under these circumstances, deploying NMD could rekindle Russian paranoia about strategic inferiority, possibly halting offensive-arms control and convincing Moscow to retain on hair-trigger alert the decrepit, dangerous nuclear weapons it really should retire. It could also threaten the Nunn-Lugar program, under which the United States helps Russia secure its frighteningly scattered nuclear arsenal. This is a powerful argument, if not against NMD per se than against reckless NMD deployment that would stick America’s high-tech thumb in Russia’s eye. Whatever threat countries like North Korea may pose to the United States in the coming years, the danger of loose Russian nukes is orders of magnitude greater. It would be folly to address the first concern in a way that would exacerbate the second.

The skeptics’ second argument is technological: Good missiledefense systems are very difficult to develop-harder than their proponents like to admit. Some progress is being made in TMD, but much remains to be done, and national defenses against intercontinental missiles remain a good way off. Indeed, another 1998 task force, this one led by retired General Larry D. Welch, argued that missile-defense research programs are being pushed too rapidly, in what amounts to a “rush to failure.” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Henry H. Shelton and Lieutenant General Lester L. Lyles, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, have repeatedly acknowledged that the NMD development schedule is very ambitious. Yet the Clinton administration now plans to make an initial decision on whether to deploy NMD after only 3 or 4 of the 19 planned intercept tests have been completed.

If missile defenses eventually work on the test range, they may still be defeated by a real enemy’s countermeasures. We may learn to hit a bullet with a bullet under controlled conditions. But what if the incoming bullet is accompanied by dozens of decoys, or is part of a multimissile attack designed to overwhelm defenses? Such countermeasures are to be expected from a sophisticated foe. Even a less-sophisticated opponent might devise reasonably effective ones.

Missile-defense opponents also point to cost. The United States has spent about $3.5 billion a year on missile-defense programs since President Reagan first announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, adding up to more than $50 billion in 16 years. If one counts back to the early 1960s, the grand total reaches more than $100 billion (in constant 1999 dollars). Current plans call for spending more than $4 billion a year over the next five years, including $1.5 billion annually for NMD. Proponents argue that, given the stakes involved, these numbers are not actually so big-the tab for NMD amounts to less than one percent of defense spending. If Washington can spend ten percent of the defense budget defending Persian Gulf oil or South Korean security, these advocates argue, it can devote one or even two percent to protecting America’s own territory-not an unreasonable position, assuming NMD actually works.

Proponents and critics squabble over another central point. Why bother with missile defenses, skeptics ask, when the country remains vulnerable to suitcase bombs, ships carrying nuclear weapons in their cargo bays, or cruise missiles launched from boats or submarines off U.S. shores? Better-and cheaper-to rely on the time-tested technique of deterrence, and possibly on preemptive strikes with increasingly accurate conventional weapons. NMD advocates, however, object to placing all defense eggs in one basket. They insist that it makes no sense to throw in the towel simply because missile defenses are not a panacea. The Coast Guard and Customs Service offer at least some protection against these other means of delivery, whereas America is strategically naked against the missile threat. Finally, they note that missile threats are fundamentally different from suitcase- or shipdelivered bombs in that they can be delivered very quickly-making them especially dangerous to the United States under crisis or wartime conditions.

NMD supporters are at their strongest when warning that missile threats from countries like North Korea could well arise in coming years. Their critics do best when pointing out the technical challenges to developing good defenses, and when emphasizing that missile defenses would be counterproductive if they end up degrading nuclear security in Russia. So much for the rhetoric and opening policy positions. What underlies them? What exactly is the state of missile-defense technology, and what are our real options?

Patriot Games

Since the Gulf War, the United States has significantly improved its only existing missile-defense system, the Patriot. Its radar now has greater range and can track more objects simultaneously, and in 2001, the Pentagon is to deploy a further-improved version of the Patriot. The date is later than initially expected-another reminder of how hard it is to develop missile-defense systems. Still, the new Patriot should do its job well. It will be able to identify actual warheads, so that it will not be fooled by simple decoys or by the breakup of a missile’s body during atmospheric reentry (as were its predecessors during the Gulf War). It will also boast a new “hit-to-kill” interceptor that uses the energy of impact to thoroughly demolish a target and that achieved a completely successful test in early 1999. Whereas the existing Patriot system (known as PAC-2) can defend an area with a radius of some 10 to 15 kilometers, the new PAC-3 will triple that coverage, feature self-contained radar units in the interceptor missiles to guide their final approaches, and use more accurate thrusters (instead of fins) for steering.

The Pentagon is also developing a low-altitude theater defense, using a modified form of the Standard antiaircraft missile and based on Navy Aegis-class ships. Known simply as the “Navy Area Defense System,” it is designed to cover a zone somewhat larger than the new Patriot. Recent tests of the system’s individual components-its missiles and on-ship radar-have been successful. The Navy hopes to deploy the system on at least 40 ships by 2003. The United States is also chipping in on two international programs-Israel’s Arrow and the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), being pursued with NATO partners Germany and Italy.

Less mature, meanwhile, are programs designed to defend larger regions of a few hundred kilometers’ width: the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) and the Navy Theater Wide system (NTW). THAAD has often appeared in the news because of its testing difficulties. THAAD’s problems, however, were more the result of shoddy workmanship than the viability (or lack thereof) of the hit-to-kill concept. And THAAD finally scored direct hits during tests in June and August. The successful interceptions do not prove that THAAD can handle the most difficult targets, but they occurred at much higher altitudes and farther from base than the Patriot can reach; they also used THAAD’s infrared seeker to guide the interceptor’s final approach. Whichever of these programs THAAD or NTW-advances more rapidly will be fielded in 2007, and the other sometime thereafter-although THAAD enthusiasts, buoyed by their recent pair of successes, now hope to speed up development.

THAAD and NTW are to have similar characteristics and capabilities (as will the Patriot and Navy Area Defense). This redundancy is justified, in part, by the fact that the Navy needs its own systems to work aboard ships at sea. Another part of the rationale, however, is that high-technology programs are inherently risky and difficult. It therefore makes sense for the Pentagon to hedge its bets by supporting more than one system.

Of all the theater missile-defense programs, NTW is the only one that could arguably violate the ABM Treaty. The treaty permits theater missile defenses but does not clearly define just what is a theater and what is a national missile defense. In 1997, the United States and Russia jointly defined TMD as any system using interceptors that do not exceed speeds of 3 kilometers per second and that are not tested against incoming warheads with speeds greater than 5 kilometers per second or ranges greater than 3,500 kilometers. (The Clinton administration, awaiting a more favorable arms control climate, has not yet submitted this agreement to Congress for approval, but in the meantime both Moscow and Washington are treating it as binding.) The NTW’s interceptor exceeds that speed limit, putting it in a grey area with respect to the treaty. As weapons expert Theodore A. Postal points out, the NTW’s speed raises concerns that, if tied in with advanced sensors, it could work as a form of national missile defense which the treaty bans. To contain the damage to U.S.-Russian relations, therefore, the United States would be wise to cap the speed of future TMD interceptors-and perhaps limit the number of NTW interceptors it buys.

In all other respects, TMD will remain far less contentious than NMD. Some analysts worry that advanced TMD systems could harm the U.S.-China relationship. After all, such systems could defend Japan or Taiwan against China’s abundant short- and mediumrange missiles. The proximity of the North Korean threat, however, together with Beijing’s own clumsy diplomacy (remember its live missile firings in the Taiwan Straits in 1995 and 1996), mean that China will be unlikely to convince the United States or its Asian security partners to forgo such missile defenses. Any debate will probably focus on issues such as how closely America should collaborate with Taiwan on TMD-not on whether theater defenses are desirable in the first place.

Clinton’s New Math

Despite the controversy, the Clinton administration is continuing to develop a national missile-defense system. It intends to make a decision about deployment in the spring of 2000, so that a system can be up and running by 2005. Any policy it devises next year, however, will be highly provisional. As noted, no more than 4 of the 19 intercept tests will have been completed by then. The Pentagon’s own Ballistic Missile Defense Organization now acknowledges that there is no way that a proper interceptor can be fully developed and tested before 2003, meaning that next year’s decision will be limited to general concepts and sensors. At most, it will start the NMD ball rolling.

President Clinton’s support for national missile defense has its roots in the Republican takeover of Congress. True to their 1994 Contract with America, congressional Republicans mandated a national missile defense by 2003. Clinton vetoed the bill but then sought to co-opt the issue. The administration devised a “3+3” program for developing an NMD system over three years and deciding in 2000 whether to deploy it over the following three years. To make the program realistic, the Pentagon kicked in an additional $2.3 billion for NMD research in May 1997, doubling planned funding for the six-year period.

Support for NMD built up even more steam in 1998, when both Iran and North Korea surprised the intelligence community with tests that showed rapid progress in their respective missile programs. Iran fired the Shahab 3, with a range of some 1,300 kilometers, and showed signs that it was developing a Shahab 4, with an estimated range of at least 2,000 kilometers. North Korea fired its Taepo Dong 1 over Japan and went to work on the Taepo Dong 2, which could potentially, albeit inaccurately, strike the continental United States.

The stakes rose again in 1999, when the Clinton administration added $6.6 billion for deployment to its missile-defense plan (making for a grand total of $10.5 billion for NMD between 1999 and 2005). Yet even if the cost increases another 50 percent, as is normal for hightechnology weaponry, this sum will hardly be enormous compared to planned fighter, submarine, and destroyer programs, each expected to run into many tens of billions of dollars.

Clinton submitted his missile-defense budget to Congress in February 1999. Overwhelming majorities of both houses responded with a bill declaring it U.S. policy to deploy a national missile defense as soon as “technologically feasible,” although amendments to the bill require that consideration be given to its budgetary and arms-control implications. Republican proponents of the bill, such as Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), declared these amendments to be unimportant. But the president emphasized them when signing the bill into law in July, as had many arms control advocates in Congress when they voted for it. Just how much concern should be given to arms control or budgetary constraints was not clearly established. This reveals that although Washington has shifted toward NMD, the unity only goes so far. The 1999 National Missile Defense Act is a deep disagreement masquerading as a consensus.

The administration’s NMD system will at first probably deploy 20 very-high-speed interceptors in Alaska that can shoot down a handful of incoming warheads, and might later be expanded to include up to loo interceptors. In that sense it would fall within ABM Treaty guidelines, which allow as many as loo long-range interceptors to be based at a single site. The ABM Treaty, however, does not permit deploying a national defense of any kind or size; interceptors are supposed to defend only the nation’s capital or an ICBM missile field.

Technical problems with the Clinton plan can also be expected. Someday, hit-to-kill interceptors should be able to reliably destroy an incoming missile flying a clear trajectory. Naysayers notwithstanding, 1999 has been a good year for such technology, with two successful tests of both the Patriot PAC-3 and TH.AD. And in early October, the NMD program scored an impressive hit, achieving a high-speed collision between its prototypical “exoatmospheric kill vehicle,” launched from the Marshall Islands on a jury-rigged booster rocket, and a warhead (accompanied by a few simple decoys) launched moments earlier from California. Nevertheless, the NMD program is still being hurried. It makes little sense, for example, to insist on deploying NMD before shorter-range systems with much slower interceptors, like THAAD or NTW, can be fielded. Yet the Pentagon intends to do exactly that.

An even greater challenge, and one that will not be so easily solved by a scheduling change, is how to distinguish advanced countermeasures from actual warheads. This is not always easy even within the Earth’s atmosphere, where TMD operates. But it is particularly difficult outside the atmosphere, where the longer-range NMD systems now under development would have to work. Prior to a warhead’s reentry into the atmosphere, with no air resistance to separate out lighter decoys from heavier warheads, speed can not be used to distinguish the real from the fake. To mimic the infrared heat signature of a warhead, thereby fooling temperature sensors, decoys can be equipped with small heat generators. To fool radar or imaging infrared sensors, warheads and decoys alike can be placed inside radar-reflective balloons that make it impossible to see their interiors. Such countermeasures would doom a national missile defense of the type now under consideration and development in the United States-inconvenient facts that NMD proponents tend to ignore.

The news is not entirely bleak. It is not trivial to develop good decoy technology, or the means to deploy decoys in space-especially for a country unable to do much testing. Moreover, while using chemical or biological “bomblets” would be another way to evade interceptors, such weapons are generally not as dangerous as nuclear warheads, particularly when delivered by missile. Meanwhile, to make it much tougher for an enemy to defeat our NMD with fairly simple countermeasures and to provide some defense for regions outside of North America, the United States could develop interceptors to hit long-range enemy missiles right after they are launched. This system, suggested by physicist Richard L. Garwin, appears to be within reach technologically. It would destroy enemy missiles before they ever left the atmosphere and got a chance to dispense warheads and decoys. The interceptors could be deployed near the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East, or other trouble spots (provided appropriate bases were available). Such a “boost-phase” defense would also require modifications to the ABM Treaty, but such changes should not be very troubling to Moscow, since the defense would not work against missiles launched at North America from the interior of Asia.

As this suggests, a light nationwide missile defense will have serious limitations. But such a system could still provide some protection, if not a totally leakproof shield, against the threats that North Korea, Iran, or other “rogue states” could develop in the next decade or so.

To Russia with Love

Whether to continue TMD development and deployment is an easy question to answer. There is, thankfully, little ideological debate on this point in the United States. And with good reason: the threats are real, the risks posed by TMD to U. S.-Russian relations (and hence to nuclear safety) are quite limited, and the prospects for success are reasonably good.

On balance, deploying a national missile defense also makes sense. But the case is less clear-cut, and the technology less mature. To truly enhance nuclear safety and U.S. security, moreover, NMD must be pursued only as part of a broader package of initiatives toward Russia.

It would be folly to deploy NMD in such a way as to damage U.S.-Russian ties. That does not mean Washington should let Moscow block decisions about American security, any more than Washington should have let Moscow veto NATO’s recent war against Serbia. However, America should give the Kremlin every reasonable incentive to amend the ABM Treaty. If Russia refuses to renegotiate the treaty, the United States should deploy NMD anyway but take steps to limit the damage in bilateral relations that will result.

One way to help Russia swallow this bitter pill is to make it crystal clear that the United States has abandoned the pursuit of nuclear superiority. Washington should unilaterally begin to drop force levels to ceilings set by the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START ii), even before the Russian parliament ratifies the treaty, and should propose to lower START III arsenals even further (to 1,000 warheads). The United States should openly reduce the alert levels of many, if not all, of its nuclear forces (as proposed by arms control advocates Bruce Blair, Harold Feiveson, and Frank von Hippel) to alleviate Russian concerns of a surprise U.S. attack that could sneak in through holes in Russia’s deteriorating early-warning network. It should help Russia repair that network, perhaps funding the launch of warning satellites that Russia cannot now afford to put in space itself (as recently discussed by the Congressional Budget Office). And Washington should collaborate with Moscow on NMD, at least in limited ways.

The United States should also take other Russian concerns more seriously. Notably, any consideration of Baltic or Ukrainian NATO membership should be postponed-ideally until Russia itself is a viable candidate. Meanwhile, if Russia ever finds a workable economic reform plan, the West should support it with much more than miserly IMF loans at market rates.

Only with a broader arms control and Russia policy in place can the United States get serious about NMD without jeopardizing nuclear security. There have already been encouraging signs, suggesting that such a new Russia policy might pay off. For example, during a July visit to Washington, then-Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin reaffirmed Russia’s willingness to discuss modifications of the ABM Treaty. He went so far as to downplay the threat posed by America’s development of NMD, declaring that “this is being done not because of a threat from Russia but because of the threat from countries with complex, difficult regimes.” August and September follow-up talks in Moscow did not go so well, however-perhaps because the Americans did not offer any new incentives or reassurances. Next time around, they should.

Meanwhile, the United States retains several strategic options. Clinton’s successor could even expand current U.S. plans for NMD beyond the single site now intended for either North Dakota or Alaska. Multiple sites could protect population centers from missiles launched off ships.

Some advocate an even larger national missile defense, such as former President George Bush’s proposed Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system. That design called for 1,000 space-based interceptors (“brilliant pebbles”) and 750 ground-based interceptors at a total of six sites; depending on how an enemy attacked, GPALS might be capable of shooting down 100-200 warheads with a “leakage” of no more than two or three. Only a defense of this size could stand a chance against a major Russian rogue launch.

But GPALs would be very expensive, easily approaching $50 billion if not more. And it would be just as vulnerable to good countermeasures as would Clinton’s smaller, cheaper system. It would also pose much greater risks to the U.S.-Russian relationship, and so could easily do more harm than good.

The U.S. missile-defense debate has long suffered from a lack of dispassionate thinking. Most proponents are too cavalier about NMDs political implications and its psychological impact on Russia. Many also have what nuclear weapons expert Stephen Schwartz calls a “field of dreams” attitude-if we build it, it will work. This could also be described as a blind faith in technology. Most defense opponents, by contrast, remain stuck in the strategic and technological circumstances of the Cold War. Both sides need to reassess.

In the end, missile defense is not a good ideological issue-not something to passionately champion or to fight steadfastly against. Zealots should spare us their tired polemics. The right solution to the NMD question is moderate and nuanced-less dramatic than the Star Wars scenarios envisioned by Ronald Reagan or George Lucas. That may not be very exciting, but life often isn’t. That’s one of the differences between Washington and Hollywood, after all.