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short-ranged, use outdated technology, and were bought abroad, not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 extremely
The space-based component of GPALS might allow the US to
intervene in regional conflicts even if US forces are not involved. …