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Missile Insecurity

U.S. must be cautious: A national missile defense system could destabilize the global arms picture.

May 28, 2000

High on President Clinton's agenda when he meets with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow next weekend is a proposal to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It would allow the United States to deploy a national missile defense system designed to protect all 50 states against limited missile attacks.

American officials refuse to be deterred by Russia's unequivocal public refusal to alter the bilateral treaty. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said after talks in Moscow last week that he thinks a deal can be struck, possibly one that would make deeper cuts in strategic weapons in return for Russia's acceptance of the system, known by the acronym NMD.

But Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has already warned that any such deal presented to his Foreign Relations Committee would be dead on arrival. Helms is among those who favor a missile defense system far more extensive than what's being considered. In his view, if deploying such a system means scrapping the ABM treaty, inviting a new arms race and souring relations with the European allies, who rightly see NMD as destabilizing, well, then, so be it.

Pushing ahead with NMD could mean all that and more, according to a secret intelligence report being prepared for Clinton. As reported by Bob Drogin and Tyler Marshall of the Times Washington bureau, the report cautions that NMD could threaten rather than improve national security, especially if it leads China to expand its strategic missile force and develop countermeasures that it could sell to such states as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. These are the very countries whose so far nonexistent intercontinental missiles NMD is supposed to deter.

Moscow, which retains thousands of nuclear warheads, might be convinced that a missile defense system using no more than 250 interceptors wouldn't affect the strategic balance. But China, which has only 20 long-range and now largely obsolescent missiles, could see a security threat. The intelligence estimate warns that if NMD proceeds, China could be expected to expand its missile force substantially and to develop decoys, jammers and other defenses to confuse or evade U.S. interceptors.

That may not be difficult. NMD is highly complex. It depends on using special ground-based radar and space satellites to direct interceptor missiles to where their "kill vehicles" can strike and destroy incoming warheads. It's also very expensive--$60 billion is projected for the system now under consideration. The system's effectiveness, including its crucial ability not to be fooled by decoys, hasn't been established.

Is NMD really needed? If North Korea, Iran or Iraq was foolish enough to attack the United States, why use a missile whose launching could be immediately spotted by spy satellites, inviting a devastating response? Why would an enemy not instead, as one U.S. intelligence official told The Times, use "more accurate, more reliable and much cheaper" methods. A nuclear, chemical or biological weapon hidden aboard a container ship docking at Long Beach or the port of New York might fit that description.

Political momentum behind NMD may be increasing. George W. Bush, in his intriguing proposal to reduce the nuclear arsenal, also embraced the notion of a far more extensive missile defense system than Clinton is considering. But what surely should be apparent is that the bigger the U.S. missile defense system, the less inclined Russia will be to downsize its nuclear stockpile. What's clearly missing in all the assuring talk about NMD is context. That includes the formidable strategic and political costs of deploying such a system. This supposed security enhancement could well leave the United States far less secure than it is now.

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