Best Defense is No Missile Defense at All

Call them irresponsible. Presidential candidates George Bush and Al Gore have joined President Clinton and Congressional Republicans in their quest to create a defense shield they say will protect the United States from a missile attack by a foreign power.

Both candidates say a shield will allow the United States to protect itself from a potential nuclear attack by a "rogue state" and that it offers the best and most effective way of ensuring the safety of American citizens into the future.

But the shield is nothing more than a very expensive pipe dream that is more likely to antagonize the world's other nuclear powers and lead to a full-bore resumption of the nuclear arms race.

The shield concept, dubbed Star Wars, dates back to 1983 when President Ronald Reagan called on the scientific community to develop space-based lasers that could destroy incoming nuclear missiles. The idea was to make a first strike by the Soviet Union impossible.

Under the Strategic Defense Initiative, the federal government would help create the necessary technology -- either lasers or guided missiles. More than $60 billion has been spent so far on antimissile research, with nothing to show for it.

Despite this, the Star Wars concept refuses to die. As Frances FitzGerald, author of Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, pointed out June 4 in a New York Times op-ed, the concept continues to have political legs. Republicans in Congress, who have been loathe to agree to cut back in arms, are firmly behind Star Wars, "speak(ing) as if exotic technologies were ready to jump off the assembly lines." The Democrats, on the other hand, their political fortunes uncertain, have been unable or unwilling to put up much of a fight. On top of all this, defense contractors and lobbyists have been putting on a full-court press to make it happen.

Enter President Bill Clinton. Reacting to a report that "rogue states" such as North Korea or Iran could acquire nuclear missile capabilities, the president announced he would move forward with the program.

The administration plan is small in scale, "meant to deal with a few dozen incoming warheads," according to report by William D. Hartung and Michelle Ciarrocca in The Nation. Hartung and Ciarrocca, of the World Policy Institute at the New School and the authors of Tangled Web: The Marketing of Missile Defense 1994-2000, peg the cost of the Clinton plan at $60 billion. The plan, according US News Online, "would still leave large areas of the United States vulnerable."

So George Bush has upped the ante. The Texas governor, who is challenging Vice President Gore for the presidency, has pushed for the full Reagan plan, which was "designed to fend off thousands of Soviet warheads" at a cost of about $1 trillion, Hartung and Ciarrocca write.

While the Clinton/Gore plan seems more cost-effective, it isn't because it still relies on relatively untested "interceptor missiles."

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the shield "will use high-altitude hit-to-kill interceptors (which are designed to destroy their targets by ramming into them high in or above the atmosphere), whose test record so far has been dismal." The UCS says that 2 of 15 intercept tests scored hits and that "the most recent successful high-altitude test occurred in January 1991 and the last 10 such intercept tests have been failures."

And these results were achieved under relatively ideal circumstances, the UCS says.

"A fundamental problem is that defenses will not face cooperative targets," the UCS says. "Effective countermeasures can be cheap and use simple technology -- much simpler than that required to build a long-range missile in the first place."

In addition, cheaper short-range missiles "could be launched from off-shore boats and thus might present a nearer-term threat to the United States than long-range missiles," according to the UCS. "But a national missile defense would be completely useless against such short-range missiles, which would land before the interceptors could reach them."

More ominously, Russia and China have both raised concerns about the shield.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has repeatedly told the White House that Russia would view the shield as a breach of current treaties setting targets for reducing both countries' nuclear arsenals. Putin has hinted that Russia might be forced to begin rebuilding its nuclear arsenal to compensate for the shield.

So far, Clinton's response has been to suggest the United States might share the technology and help fill in gaps in Russia's early-warning system -- a plan to which the Russians remain cool.

Add to this a CIA study, reported by US News Online, that said "China might conclude that its 20 nuclear warheads are no longer a viable deterrent and expand its strategic forces."

What the Star Wars plan ultimately does is kill any chance we have of reducing the number of nuclear weapons. Star Wars puts the onus for protection on new technologies and drops arms reduction (and eventual abolition), to the lowest rung on the defense ladder.

This would be tragic. Reduction and eventual abolition of nuclear weapons offer us our best and sanest hope of protecting our future, first by taking weapons off their current alert status, then by destroying a set number of weapons and so on.

To allow this hope to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency will do a disservice to future generations.

Below are the Web addresses of several organizations devoted to peace and disarmament issues.

Peace Action:

Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers:

Disarmament Clearinghouse:

Fourth Freedom Forum:

Physicians for Social Responsibility:

20/20 Vision:

The Union of Concerned Scientists:

Women's Action for New Directions:

Women's International League for Peace and Freedom:

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey weekly newspapers. He can be reached via e-mail at

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