SPURRED on by the Gulf war, the Bush administration is asking Congress to fund the "Global Protection Against Accidental Launch System." GPALS is an extensive system of space and ground-based interceptors to defend the United States, its allies, and its troops abroad from third-world missile attacks and unauthorized or accidental launches from the Soviet Union.
The request, which has already triggered congressional skirmishes, sets the stage for a new debate on strategic defense centering on a weapon system which suffers from fundamental flaws.
Congressional critics will argue that GPALS space-based interceptors will be unable to react quickly enough to destroy short-range missiles aimed at our allies or troops stationed abroad. Also, a conservative estimate of the cost of GPALS, $40 billion, would make it more expensive than any strategic weapon system except the B-2 bomber. Finally, many legislators will oppose GPALS since it will require dumping the 1972 US-Soviet treaty limiting anti-ballistic missile defenses.
Even more important, the threat GPALS is supposed to address may not be growing. The Gulf war demonstrated that countries like Iraq pose a missile threat. However, most third-world missiles are short-ranged, use outdated technology, and were bought abroad, not built at home. Missile suppliers will be scarce in the future, particularly if China continues to exercise the restraint it began after its transfer of missiles to Saudi Arabia in 1988. Advanced third-world attempts to "home-grow" these weapons, for example in Argentina and Brazil, are faltering.
In short, while the danger of theater missile attack will continue, it probably will not increase. A threat to the continental US may never materialize.
Domestic instability in the Soviet Union raises the possibility that disaffected groups could seize missiles. But the Soviets have taken measures, more extensive than our own, to insure against this possibility. Gen. Colin Powell has stated that because of his "knowledge of how the Soviets manage their nuclear systems," he is "fairly comfortable that those weapons will not get into improper hands" and would be "unusable" if they did.
GPALS also has important, unaddressed political implications. Soviet defenses, along the lines of GPALS, would threaten the small British and French nuclear forces, eroding the security of our allies. But little or no thought has been given to this …