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"Rush to Failure"

The flawed politics and policies of missile defense

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On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan shocked the national security establishment by calling upon the nation's scientific community, "who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these weapons impotent and obsolete." Seventeen years have passed since that speech, and the United States has spent more than $60 billion trying to develop a defense against ballistic missiles. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or "Star Wars") and its successors have cost more than twice as much as the Manhattan Project (in constant dollars), but these programs have yet to produce a single workable weapon. This "achievement" is probably a record in the annals of defense procurement: never has so much been spent for so long with so little to show for it.

Explaining how this happened--and why--is the main aim of Frances Fitzgerald's Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. The "Star Wars" saga, according to Fitzgerald, is the story of how the United States came to chase a chimera. For Fitzgerald, "Star Wars" illustrates "the extent to which our national discourse about foreign and defense policy is not about reality--or the best intelligence estimates about it--but instead a matter of domestic politics, history, and mythology."

Not surprisingly, Fitzgerald's account begins with Ronald Reagan himself. Her portrait is a familiar one: an amiable but detached chief executive who was poorly informed on most policy issues and unwilling to rein in his constantly warring subordinates. At the same time, she confirms that Reagan was a skilled public performer with a remarkable ability to adapt his message to the American people's pulse. Fitzgerald suggests that some of his political magic was the result of his early exposure to evangelical religion: themes of salvation and redemption, good and evil, and so on are deeply woven into the fabric of American political culture, and they were also key elements of Reagan's political rhetoric. The "Star Wars" speech was itself an example of Reagan's ability to invoke religious themes: by calling for the "scientific community" to render nuclear weapons obsolete, Reagan was providing them with an opportunity to atone for having created them in the first place.

The bulk of the book--nearly 500 densely footnoted pages--is a detailed narrative of the Reagan administration's defense and arms-control policy and its handling of U.S.-Soviet relations. Fitzgerald's research is extensive and for the most part convincing, and her effort to untangle the conflicting accounts of this period is especially impressive. The result is a comprehensive and often damning account of Reagan-era defense policy.

What are her most interesting discoveries? First, Fitzgerald shows that the early attempts to launch a major missile-defense program failed to garner much support within the government, simply because the various schemes could not pass the most rudimentary feasibility study. When a retired general, Daniel Graham, persuaded the Pentagon to evaluate a missile-defense plan known as "High Frontier," for example, both the army and the air force concluded that the proposal was "unrealistic regarding state of technology, cost, and schedule...[it] has no technical merit and should be rejected." Thus, even though Reagan liked the basic idea of missile defense and several White House aides were strong supporters, the program's enthusiasts made little progress in the first two years of his presidency.

Second, Fitzgerald argues that the decision to embrace strategic defense was primarily a political gesture designed to defuse opposition at home. Specifically, the real catalyst for the 1983 speech was the nuclear-freeze movement, a grassroots antinuclear campaign that Reagan's aides feared would undermine public support for his entire defense buildup. The idea of issuing a sweeping call to eliminate the nuclear threat also appealed to Reagan's own misgivings about the policy of nuclear deterrence--forestalling a Soviet attack solely by threatening devastating nuclear retaliation. Moreover, he recognized that a pledge to protect the American people from nuclear destruction would be politically popular.

At the same time, most experts recognized that an effective defense was not even remotely feasible. These doubts arose not because skeptics liked nuclear deterrence, of course, but because the physical realities of nuclear weaponry make it very difficult to build a meaningful defense. Nuclear weapons are small, comparatively light, and enormously destructive, and it would take but a handful to wreak devastation on any advanced society. Because it takes less than 30 minutes to send an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) around the world, a defensive system has to respond almost instantly to an attack. It has to be able to distinguish real warheads from decoys and other penetration aids, track them at thousands of miles per hour, and eventually guide a missile (or conceivably a laser or particle beam) to destroy them. And such a system has to work with nearly 100 percent reliability the very first time it is needed. A defense that stopped 90 warheads but missed 10 would be a technological marvel, but it would hardly be regarded as "effective," even by those who survived. As McGeorge Bundy once noted, a mere 10 bombs landing on U.S. cities would be a "disaster beyond history."

Moreover, a strategic defense system has to be invulnerable, or an opponent can simply destroy the defense first and then fire the main attack. Nor does missile defense make sense if it can be overcome more cheaply than it can be built, because opponents could always retain their lead at less cost. And even if one could devise a cost-effective defense against ballistic missiles, the threat of nuclear weapons would hardly be defused without additional defenses against aircraft, cruise missiles, or even clandestine smuggling.

Given these obstacles, it soon became clear that Reagan's vision of rendering nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" was beyond our reach. The exotic "Star Wars" technologies touted by proponents turned out to be less effective than originally believed, and congressional investigators soon discovered that many of the alleged technical advances were, as one scientist admitted, little more than a "series of sleazy stunts." Administration officials began to concede that SDI would not be able to defend the U.S. population, but argued that the technology might complicate an attacker's plans and provide a good way to defend the U.S. ICBM force. Hardliners tried to get permission to begin a limited deployment before Reagan left office, but their efforts failed because there was in reality no system to deploy.

Even if "Star Wars" failed to produce a usable defensive weapon, its advocates often argue that it helped drive the final nail in the coffin of the "evil empire." Fitzgerald goes to some lengths to debunk the claim that "Star Wars" hastened the Soviet collapse--an article of faith among U.S. conservatives. She points out that the Soviet Union never really responded to "Star Wars": Soviet defense allocations did not increase significantly following Reagan's speech, and Moscow never accelerated its own efforts to develop its own defenses or to perfect new countermeasures. The Soviet Union collapsed, Fitzgerald writes, because of "the failures of the system created by Lenin and Stalin--not from any effort on the part of the Reagan Administration.... It was [Mikhail] Gorbachev's efforts to reverse the decline and modernize his country that knocked the props out from under the system." Ironically, she credits Reagan for being quicker to recognize this than his more hawkish advisers, who continued to see the U.S.S.R. as a looming danger even after Gorbachev's reforms had begun to dissolve the Soviet empire from within.

Fitzgerald concludes with a final puzzle: if the costly pursuit of a national missile defense has accomplished so little, why does it continue? She suggests that the support is largely a matter of ideological conviction, but several other factors are at work as well.

To begin with, the missile-defense program is now well entrenched within the defense establishment, and government programs rarely go out of business without a fight. Moreover, given President Clinton's shaky relationship with the U.S. military, his support for this project has been an obvious way to counter right-wing complaints that he was soft on defense.

The end of the Cold War has also made the objective seem somewhat more feasible (although it is still a long way off). Instead of trying to counter thousands of Soviet warheads, current plans focus on the more realistic goal of stopping accidental launches or small attacks from rogue states. Although it is not clear whether even this modest capability can be achieved, the revised rationale is not as far-fetched as Reagan's original dream.

Finally, the spread of nuclear and ballistic missile technology to states like Iraq and North Korea has increased support for the program. In particular, missile defenses are seen as a way to keep a state like North Korea from trying to deter the use of U.S. conventional forces by threatening nuclear escalation. Instead of being a means for eliminating nuclear weapons, in short, missile defense is now seen as a way for the United States to retain the upper hand at any level of conflict.

 

So does it now make sense to go forward with some type of national missile defense? I think not. After all, it is still unclear whether such a system could actually work. A Department of Defense review panel recently described the current development program as a "rush to failure," and we are still billions of dollars and many years away from an operational system. Moreover, the systems we are presently developing would be incapable of dealing with rather primitive countermeasures, which means that even a minor power like North Korea could probably overcome them easily. Thus, the alleged benefits may be wholly imaginary.

Even if missile defenses were capable of protecting us from rogue states such as Iraq or North Korea, is this really a serious danger? Do we really think that these regimes would invite national suicide by launching a handful of missiles at the United States, knowing that we had thousands of warheads with which to respond? Advocates argue that such assailants are inherently irrational and cannot be trusted, but similar arguments were made about Mao Zedong's China and Stalin's Russia--and both states behaved as sensibly as we did when dealing with nuclear weapons. If we could deter the "evil empire" for four decades without a strategic defense, we can almost certainly deter today's rogue states.

Furthermore, if we were able to build an effective defense against ballistic missiles, hostile regimes could simply devise other ways to deliver such weapons to U.S. soil. The U.S. border is notoriously permeable (as illegal immigrants and drug smugglers demonstrate daily), and a clandestine attack would be harder to deter because we might not know who was responsible. Ballistic missiles, by contrast, have unmistakable "return addresses."

So much for the alleged benefits. Let us now consider some of the costs.

First, creating a missile defense will discourage Russia from further reducing its existing arsenal and encourage states like China to increase theirs. Russia and China are unlikely to accept U.S. assurances that our missile defense is not directed at them; nor will they believe that a limited defense today might not be expanded in the future. And their real fear is that the combination of large offensive forces and a limited missile-defense capability might enable the United States to launch a first strike, counting on the defense to handle the opponent's surviving forces. If this concern seems far-fetched, imagine how U.S. hardliners would react if Russia or China were modernizing their own arsenals and moving to develop their own defenses. U.S. leaders would find this deeply worrying, even if Moscow or Beijing assured us that their defensive systems were only intended to deal with an accidental launch or "limited" threat from North Korea or India.

Second, building missile defenses jeopardizes the current campaign to control "loose nukes" in the former Soviet Union. Russia is clearly willing to cooperate with us in dismantling obsolete warheads, reducing the size of its weapons complex, and getting rid of its huge plutonium stockpile. Moscow has also made it clear, however, that unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (which would be necessary if the U.S. were to deploy a defense), would derail these cooperative efforts. There is an obvious irony here: the United States is spending billions of dollars trying to protect itself from a handful of (non-existent) weapons in the hands of Iraq or North Korea, thereby undermining the successful effort to dismantle thousands of real weapons in the former Soviet Union.

Third, developing, building, and deploying a system will not be cheap. The General Accounting Office estimates that a single-site, bare-bones defense would cost at least $18 billion; the cost of a somewhat more capable system might run over $28 billion. The U.S. defense budget will face increasing fiscal pressures in the next decade. Given the dubious benefits of missile defense, this hardly looks like the right place to invest scarce defense dollars.

On all counts, the case for national missile defense is nearly as weak as it was when "Star Wars" began. Unfortunately, logic and reason play little role in the present debate, so it is increasingly likely that some sort of defense will eventually be deployed. Great powers like the United States are strongly inclined to seek unilateral advantages wherever they can find them; it requires wisdom and foresight to recognize when seizing some alleged "advantage" might be wasteful or counterproductive. Fitzgerald's account shows that such wisdom was absent when "Star Wars" was launched, and nothing in the present debate suggests that much has been learned. During the next decade, the United States will spend further billions of dollars on missile defense, even though we are likely to be disappointed by the results. But after reading Way Out There in the Blue, we certainly shouldn't be surprised.