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No National Missile Defense, A Counter Productive National Missile Defense

By Jimmy Carter

This Op-Ed appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  DO NOT REPRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION.  Copyright (c) The Carter Center.

Postponing approval of a national missile defense (NMD) system was the only logical decision President Bill Clinton could have made. Yet I know from my own experience that it was not an easy decision. The primary support for NMD comes from a defense industry eager for lucrative contracts and from supporting lobbyists and members of congress. When they argue that a new weapons system will save "American lives," it is difficult to oppose them.

I faced a similar challenge when as president I decided not to build the B-1 bomber. I knew that better alternatives were the cruise missile and the stealth bomber, which we proceeded to develop. They have proved as effective in combat as we hoped. The B-1 bomber project did not die, however, but was resurrected during the next administration. It has proven to be both enormously expensive and relatively ineffective. Another difficult decision of mine was to cancel production and deployment of the neutron bomb, designed to destroy human beings while sparing weapons, buildings, and other inanimate objects.

NMD is another likely waste of money; estimates of its cost run from $60 billion to $240 billion. Ostensibly aimed at North Korea, the planned first phase of this system would have included 20 interceptor missiles based in Alaska, targeting radar, the upgrading of several early warning radars, and perhaps missile-tracking satellites in low earth orbit. It is likely that large expenditures on NMD would actually weaken U.S. defense, taking funds away from enhanced personnel training and modernizing aged military aircraft and other key weapon systems.

Calls for the NMD were based primarily on predictions that North Korea will have the desire and capability to attack our allies or us. But recent peace moves between Seoul and Pyongyang, and North Korea's declared moratorium on long-range missile tests must be taken into account. Diplomatic efforts to promote peace are highly cost-effective, but there has been a disturbing reduction in funds for these functions of the State Department. The portion of our federal budget devoted to foreign aid and diplomacy has now dropped to one percent from four percent in the 1960s. The fact is that arms reduction treaties and improved relations with Russia and other potential enemies have made us less vulnerable to missile attacks than at any time since the 1960s, and incoming ICBMs are among the least likely of the remaining threats. Easier to deliver and more difficult to detect are nuclear explosives delivered on short range missiles such as the Scud missiles used in the Gulf War, or just hidden in a small container in a truck or a commercial aircraft or ship. The NMD would not address these threats.

As far as reliability of the planned NMD system is concerned, two of the three carefully orchestrated interception tests have failed, despite the fact that those who launched both the target and interceptor missiles wanted the tests to succeed and not even the most elementary countermeasures were used. In July, the unanimous vote of Republican senators brought a narrow decision (52-48) not to test potential countermeasures, even a few released decoy balloons!

In lieu of NMD, former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and other military experts advocate improvements in our existing theater missile defense systems, as used in the Gulf War. These could be deployed at sea, near enough to a potential attacker to be effective in the much more vulnerable boost stage of an enemy ICBM, and would not be in violation of the ABM treaty with Russia. Seeking the cooperation of other nations on this project might bring mutual agreement on an improved ABM treaty.

Perhaps the most serious consequences of a unilateral decision to develop the national missile defense system would be its adverse effect on the global non-proliferation effort, the alienation of our allies, and the cancellation of existing agreements to limit and reduce nuclear arsenals. Secretary of Defense William Cohen has expressed this concern most succinctly: "In order to have a technologically effective system, we need to have the support of our allies." In fact, few if any other nations support the proposed NMD system. Designed to defend against incoming ICBMs, the NMD might well invalidate the 1972 ABM treaty between Russia and the U.S. that provides the foundation for existing arms control treaties. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced to his parliament that if the U.S. proceeds to subvert the ABM Treaty, Russia would withdraw not only from the START II Treaty but also "from the whole system of treaty relations on the limitation and control of strategic and conventional arms." China's top arms control official, Sha Zukang, told the Washington Post that "any amendment or abolishing of the ABM treaty will lead to disastrous consequences, and will bring a halt to nuclear disarmament." Knowing that the proposed NMD deployment would be facing both North Korea and China, he added that this would upend the "strategic stability" that maintains deterrence around the world.

Unfortunately, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has publicly discounted these and other negative factors and pledge to support blindly an "expanded" National Missile Defense system, regardless of test failures, that would be even more costly, damaging to the rest of our defense capabilities, much more intensely opposed by our allies, and more certain to abrogate all the existing treaties that limit nuclear arsenals.

Two arguments being used against NMD: critics within the U.S. say that it won't work, and critics outside the U.S. fear that it will work and destabilize the international arms balance. Either way, we lose.

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