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Forum: Rumsfeld's folly: National Missile Defense

The prospective leader of the Defense Department supports a program that, perversely, weakens national security, says Eric Swanson

Sunday, January 14, 2001

Donald Rumsfeld, the incoming secretary of defense, has a long history in Washington. He served as secretary of Defense in the Ford administration and as assistant to President Nixon. In 1977 he left politics to become president of G.D. Searle & Co. Pharmaceuticals, where he gained notoriety for using his connections to push the approval of aspartame through government circles (thereby spawning a subindustry for medical-government-military-complex conspiracy theorists).

  Eric Swanson is an assistant professor of nuclear physics at the University of Pittsburgh, a member of the American Physics Society Forum on Physics and Society, and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

His last foray into politics was in 1998. He was tapped to head a congressional commission to examine the threat to national security posed by nuclear missile attack from rogue nations. The commission was formed in response to Republican pressure raised, in part, because they did not like the conclusions of a 1995 National Intelligence Estimate, which did not find a substantial risk.

Rumsfeld fulfilled his role perfectly, concluding that the intelligence estimate report was incorrect and strongly supporting the proposed National Missile Defense program. With this appointment, it is clear that President-elect George W. Bush intends to fulfill his campaign promise to deploy NMD as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, funding this multibillion-dollar boondoggle - a gilded jobs program for the defense industry - will not serve to make Americans safer.

NMD is a system of "exoatmospheric kill vehicles" (EKVs) that are launched into space by conventional ballistic missiles upon the detection of any suspicious missile activity. Guided by several types of onboard, ground-based and satellite-based detectors, the EKVs are supposed to seek and destroy any enemy missiles by directly impacting them in flight (called "hitting a bullet with a bullet"). The whole process is to be monitored by the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado and is estimated to cost between $30 billion and $60 billion to build and maintain.

The NMD program is a direct descendant of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or better known as Star Wars). Sprung from the fevered imagination of Edward Teller and his cronies at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and made national policy by Ronald Reagan in 1983, the idea was to orbit giant satellites in space equipped with nuclear bombs and lasers. Enemy missiles were to be shot down by an intense X-ray beam, powered by a nuclear explosion and lasting only for an instant before the entire satellite was annihilated.

It was not until 1993 - and $30 billion later - that the project was deemed unworkable. Its successor was the equally hare-brained idea of orbiting hundreds of "brilliant pebbles" that would intercept and destroy incoming missiles by smashing into them. This program was justifiably renamed "loose marbles" by at least one senator.

In September 2000, President Clinton decided to place the deployment of the NMD program on hold. Clinton's decision was based on simple science - the system had not been proved. Only five of a planned 19 intercept tests have been carried out and the last two, on Jan. 18 and July 7, 2000, have been failures (the third achieved an intercept, but only with the aid of the target itself). Perhaps the most positive result so far is that the system has been declared Y2K compliant by the office of the Director of Evaluation and Testing.

In a further blow, the American Physics Society, a collection of 40,000 of the nation's top physicists, has declared that "the United States should not make a deployment decision relative to the planned NMD system unless that system is shown . . . to be effective against the types of offensive countermeasures that an attacker could reasonably be expected to deploy."

The physicists are raising another serious issue with this missile defense system: the smartest of sensors can be fooled with simple and cheap decoys, electronic noise and radar-evasive technology. The current system has not been tested under these circumstances.

Perhaps the most damaging problem with NMD is that it is designed to defend only against ballistic missiles. Surely any rogue nation crazy enough to attack the United States would not trust its precious nuclear weapons to notoriously unreliable ICBMs. As pointed out by the National Intelligence Council of the CIA, it is far simpler and more accurate to load the bomb onto a boat and have a volunteer sail it into Los Angeles harbor.

While all of these considerations make it clear that Clinton's decision was the correct one, a subtler issue remains for Bush and Rumsfeld. When announcing SDI, Reagan said, "I call upon the scientific community, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these weapons impotent and obsolete." What could possibly be wrong with a purely defensive system?

The problem is that is serves to destabilize a delicate nuclear balance built over 30 years of intense diplomatic effort. Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister, has made it clear that Russia regards NMD as an abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 - the cornerstone of subsequent nuclear arms control treaties. The strong Russian response is understandable. Police would also be upset if, say, the Mafia were threatening to deploy an anti-police-bullet system.

In the same address that announced the White House decision, Clinton said, "It would be folly to base the defense of our nation solely on a strategy of waiting until missiles are in the air, and then trying to shoot them down."

One can go further than this and say that it will be technologically impossible to reliably shoot them down for the foreseeable future, especially if simple countermeasures are taken, and that insisting on deploying any flawed system will needlessly put millions of Americans at a heightened risk of nuclear attack.

If such a danger were to develop in the future, NMD would do nothing to defend us from rogue nations. However, the deployment of NMD will destabilize the delicate balance with the nuclear powers, placing us at greater risk.

We can only hope that Donald Rumsfeld carefully reviews his options before making a decision on National Missile Defense.

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