Defense: Going Anti-Ballistic

The Clinton administration shoots down national missile defense.


Listen to Abul Abbas, master-mind behind the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking: "Revenge takes 40 years; if not my son, then the son of my son will kill you. Some day, we will have missiles that can reach New York."

Only a few years ago, such a boast would have been dismissed as the lunatic fantasy of a self-aggrandizing terrorist. That is no longer the case. During his confirmation hearings, President Clinton's CIA director, R. James Woolsey Jr., told the Senate Government Affairs Committee that long-range missiles capable of attacking U.S. cities will be available on the international arms market by the end of this decade. China is currently developing three new intercontinental ballistic missiles and already hawks to Third World governments smaller missiles like the CSS-2, which has a range in excess of 1,500 miles. North Korea produced some of the Scuds used by Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. More recently, it has developed the No Dong 1, a medium-range missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and has shown little interest in curbing the development (and presumably, deployment) of nuclear weapons. The current scenario is as chilling as any during the Cold War because the most likely targets of limited strikes by outlaw nations or terrorist groups are population centers, not military bases.

This harsh new reality makes the Clinton administration's dismissive approach to anti-missile missile systems indefensible. Under the administration's strategy, cities such as Tel Aviv, Seoul, and Riyadh will get U.S. technology to protect their citizens from ballistic missile warheads, while New York, Washington, and Los Angeles will not. This radical change in U.S. defense posture is the result of a one-two punch delivered by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and Rep. Frank McCloskey (D-Ind.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

Aspin downgraded U.S. territorial defense when he canceled Star Wars and replaced it with a less ambitious program called the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. The BMDO will first go after short-range missiles like the Scuds fired at Saudi Arabia and Israel during the Gulf War. Defense of U.S. borders, which was the primary objective of former President Ronald Reagan's 11-year-old Strategic Defense Initiative, was relegated to second place.

In an apparently coordinated move, McCloskey served as the administration's point man in putting national missile defense on indefinite hold. During the 1994 defense authorization, McCloskey introduced an amendment to the three-year-old Missile Defense Act that effectively cancels efforts to use interceptor missiles to defend U.S. population centers.

Congress passed the Missile Defense Act after a 1991 weapons test in the mid-Pacific demonstrated a unique U.S. capability to destroy missile warheads using the kinetic energy of a deliberate collision rather than the detonation of high explosives. During a simulated terrorist attack against a population center, an SDI-developed ground-based interceptor shot down a dummy Minuteman warhead traveling at 22 times the speed of sound. In essence, a bullet hit a bullet at 300,000 feet.

The act authorized limited deployment of defensive missiles along the Canadian border near Grand Forks, North Dakota. The modest system Congress envisioned two years ago would protect the U.S. population centers from accidental or terrorist missile attacks rather than a massive first strike reminiscent of the Cold War era. By approving the system, Congress acknowledged the threat implicit in a new world order in which nuclear-capable missiles would be widely available.

When McCloskey changed the act's operative phrase from "develop" to "conduct…research," he derailed national missile defense. If the Missile Defense Act is not scrapped outright by the amendment, advocates of arms control stand ready to bury the ground-based interceptors under enough restrictions to make them incapable of defending major population centers.

Few defense analysts oppose defending overseas military bases and cities from the growing menace of short-range ballistic missiles. If the United States can't protect its allies against nuclear bombardment, foreign governments could easily be intimidated into denying access to airfields and harbors during a crisis. The Gulf War demonstrated the viability of anti-missile missile systems and, although original Army claims that 45 of 47 Patriot interceptors fired at Scuds hit their targets were later scaled back (and only 40 percent of Patriots deployed in Israel were effective), it's clear that the system, originally intended as a long-range aircraft interceptor, worked in principle.

In fact, the BMDO plans to use similar technologies developed by SDI to upgrade short-range missile defense. Stereo processing and super-fast computers will give the edge to Patriot and Aegis rockets, also used during the Gulf War, in any future engagement with the short-range missiles now proliferating in the Third World. But what is good enough for overseas is not good enough for over here. Neither system has the punch to knock out long-range missiles capable of striking U.S. cities from overseas launch points.

For the Clinton administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress, however, adherence to 23-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed between the United States and the defunct Soviet Union is more of a priority than defending U.S. population centers. The 1972 treaty, which was designed to prevent a massive nuclear first strike by either superpower, limits U.S. missile defenses to the single North Dakota site. While that remote location is ideal for defending strategic bomber and missile bases located in the Great Plains—the presumed first targets in a "mutual assured destruction" scenario—it's clear that a massive attack from the former Soviet Union's four nuclear republics is not likely. The North Dakota site, however, is outdated in a more serious way: It's too far inland to efficiently protect population centers along our East and West coasts.

The North Dakota site could easily be updated with SDI-based technology. By using the "Brilliant Eyes" satellite warning system, which is not in any way a weapon, the Grand Forks-based interceptors will have enough reaction time to fly halfway across the continent and smash a warhead before it can level New York's Twin Towers. In fact, SDI's space-based alarm system would give Grand Forks more than enough time to fire two interceptors against an attacking warhead, assuring an even-higher probability of kill.

But under the 1972 rules, as interpreted by the Clinton administration, the United States can't maintain a missile defense system that protects its citizens from looming post-Cold War threats. According to the strict interpretation of the ABM treaty favored by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, McCloskey, and the Clinton administration, we can protect only bomber and missile bases, or nothing at all. So, they argue, why spend the money?

Although the SDI technologies of the 1980s and '90s weren't even hypothethical possibilities when President Richard M. Nixon signed the ABM treaty in Moscow, the strict interpreters won't consider deploying missile defense systems designed to protect civilian populations. Their logic is convoluted: Since the ABM treaty doesn't specifically mention space-based sensors, they must be prohibited. To them, time and technology were frozen forever in Moscow in 1972. They prefer an outdated, ineffective system geared to a threat that is currently dormant, or none at all.

Thomas Graham, acting director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, summarized the Clinton administration's assessment of the ABM Treaty in a July 14 letter to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.). Graham wrote, "It is the position of the Clinton administration that the 'narrow' or 'traditional' interpretation of the ABM Treaty is the correct interpretation and therefore that the ABM Treaty prohibits the development, testing, and deployment of sea-based, air-based, space-based and mobile land-based ABM systems and components without regard to the technology utilized." This is to say that no meaningful missile defense system will come to pass. SDI's last director, Maj. Gen. Malcolm O'Neill, said it's impossible to develop an effective national missile defense without using space-based assets.

The "narrow" interpretation of the ABM Treaty, however, doesn't take into account that the Russians never said space-based warning and queuing systems would violate the agreement. The Clinton administration, taking a page from the diplomatic playbook of the Bush administration, has steadfastly refused to request a clarification from the Russians or even attempt to re-negotiate the treaty. The other option, abrogating the outdated ABM Treaty in the interests of U.S. citizens and national defense, can't even be whispered in Washington.

This latter option would best serve national defense interests. By completely discarding an outdated icon of the Cold War, the United States could deploy the defense best suited to emerging Third World threats. We could scuttle the North Dakota site and locate missile interceptors near East Coast cities, the most likely targets of Middle Eastern terrorist nations. This would greatly increase reaction time, giving the interceptors the optimal advantage against inbound missile warheads.

Ten years and $38 billion after Reagan promised to render nuclear missiles "impotent and obsolete," little has changed in terms of American defense capabilities. Although it now has the capacity to do so, the United States is no closer to fielding an effective national missile defense than it was when Star Wars was conceived. What has changed over the last decade, and what will continue to grow into the 21st century, is the availability of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.

Michael R. Boldrick is a retired Air Force colonel who writes on arms-control and strategic-warfare issues.