By George Rathjens and Carl Kaysen,
A year ago President Bush announced that he was ordering the deployment of an anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system, with the first sites to be operational in 2004 in Alaska and California. In 1967 President Johnson made a strikingly similar decision. Both smacked of election-year domestic politics. President Johnson had reason to fear that Republican opponents would make a political issue in the 1968 election of a failure by him to begin deployment of ABM defenses. President Bush’s core constituency of hawkish right wingers will be reassured by his decision.
Yet, notwithstanding very active systems development efforts in both administrations, there was not then, and there is not now even the remotest prospect that a near-term defense of population against a determined attack by a major power—then, the Soviet Union; now, Russia or China—would be effective. So, deployment is being rationalized now by the Bush Administration, as it was by Johnson’s, as useful against emerging nuclear powers: then, China; now, North Korea—and possibly Iran .
The most fundamental problem is that the proposed system relies on a “hit-to-kill” interceptor to destroy incoming warheads above the atmosphere. We doubt that the problem of discriminating between warheads and decoys in the mid-part of their trajectories can be effectively solved in the near future, if ever. If it can not be, each American metropolitan area would have to be defended from a separate installation. But North Korea, or any other nation with a few nuclear-armed ICBMs, would need hold hostage only a few American cities, perhaps only one, to have an effective deterrent.
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has defended the President’s deployment decision, arguing that, having “a limited capability to deal with a relatively small number of incoming ballistic missiles …is better than nothing”, and that Americans should feel “marginally safer” with such deployment than without it.
Given the overwhelming retaliatory capability of the United States, we question the premise underlying the Secretary’s statements that North Korea (or perhaps another aspirant nuclear weapons state) would deliver a nuclear first strike against it once it had a capability to do so. It is more reasonable to assume that North Korea’s rationale for acquiring a nuclear ICBM capability has been similar to that of the United Statesto be able to deter another nation with strong military capabilities (in North Korea’s case, the United States; in that of the United States, the Soviet Union) from involvement in regions of conflict in ways inimical to its interests.
Moreover, there is the possibility that at a future date, when an ABM system might actually have some capability, it could, in a crisis, be oversold to a president who might then make catastrophic decisions based on an assumed level of performance that would not be realized. This is reason enough for us to conclude that, contrary to Secretary Rumsfeld’s observations, we may be less safe if the President’s program is implemented than if it is not. While we appreciate that such an error may seem a remote possibility to many, we call attention to the fact that President Bush, senior, believed that during the 1991 Gulf War, Patriot interceptor missiles had been 96% effective in destroying Iraqi Scud missiles. After later assessment, it was apparent that few, if any, successful interceptions occurred; Secretary of Defense Cohen said,”The Patriots didn’t work”.
An ABM system, even a very imperfect one, might have some value as a hedge against accidental attacks. Even so, two questions must arise. First, whether the resources required might be more wisely used on homeland security and to meet other objectives, both military and civil. Second, whether, with the deployment, the leaders and the public of the United States would feel more secure about its involvement in crises in northeast Asia, where American interests clash with those of North Korea, than if the United States were not to proceed with the deployment proposed.
An affirmative answer to this last question depends on whether any deployed defense might be essentially 100% effective. This, however, will certainly not be the case with President Bush’s announced deployment, nor do we believe it likely with any system that might evolve from it.
Like it or not, nuclear deterrence is likely to be with us during the first part of this century, as it was during much of the last. But, the United States may more often be the deterred rather than the deterrer should it seek to involve itself militarily in regions where there may be others with nuclear capabilities and interests opposed to it. We think it important that Americans recognize that the United States may not hold all the high cards and that it will have to face the reality that the costs of getting its way on all points of difference with adversaries may be higher than its citizenry are willing to pay. Beyond deterrence, its choices in dealing with North Korea as an emerging nuclear power will be by negotiation or preemptively destroying North Korea’s offending capabilities, with all the risks of massive civilian casualties and political costs that that would entail.
It is illusory to see an ABM defense system as an escape from this dilemma.