Nuclear Missile Defense. (Forum)

Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Missile Defense. (Forum)


In his article, "Keeping National Missile Defense in Perspective," (Issues, Winter 200 1-02), Dean A. Wilkening considers the utility of a limited national missile defense system and concludes that its principal benefit would be "to reduce the risks associated with regional intervention against states armed with nuclear-tipped ICBMs, especially if these conflicts turn into wars to topple the opponent's regime, because deterrence is apt to fail under these circumstances. In this regard, NMD is important for an interventionist U.S. foreign policy."

The article is full of good sense, such as Wilkening's statement that "rather than eschewing the grim premise of deterrence, as President Bush put it, the United States should reformulate deterrence to make it more effective against authoritarian regimes armed with ballistic missiles." He also aptly states that, "the United States may learn more about how to defeat countermeasures from an opponent's flight tests than the latter learns about their effectiveness."

But I quite disagree with the judgment that North Korea, for instance, could not have confidence in its measures to counter an interceptor missile from a midcourse system without extensive flight-testing. This question is treated at length in one of Wilkening's recommended readings (Andrew Sessler et al., of which I was one of 11 authors).

Those in the Clinton and now the Bush administration responsible for developing a mid-course intercept system have determined that effective countermeasures are so far off that they should not be considered. The authors of the Sessler monograph imagined that every element of the midcourse system would work perfectly and described two perfect countermeasures: first, packing a missile with biological warfare (BW) agents in the form of scores of bomblets, which would be separated from the launching rocket as soon as it reached full speed (about four minutes after launch). The bomblets, protected by individual heat shields, would then fall through the atmosphere and explode on contact with the ground. All aspects of this countermeasure were pioneered by the United States and officially published decades ago. The second countermeasure would involve enclosing a nuclear warhead in an aluminum-coated mylar balloon with a dozen or more empty balloons deployed at the same time.

Wilkening grants that BW bomblets would under some circumstances be as lethal as nuclear weapons and "can easily overwhelm midcourse ballistic missile defenses." But he still regards midcourse intercept as useful because the United States might have a vaccine against BW attack and would know where and when it had struck. And, besides, he regards covert biological delivery as a far more serious threat. By the same token, it would be far more feasible for a rogue state to deliver a nuclear weapon by means other than an ICBM. If that is reason to ignore BW attack by ICBM, it is reason to ignore nuclear attack by long-range missile.

I agree with Wilkening that if midcourse interceptors are nevertheless deployed, they be limited to 20 and deployed in North Dakota rather than in Alaska. And I agree that a terrestrial-based system designed to intercept ICBMs in their boost phase are a better choice than a midcourse system. In December 2001, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (formerly the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization) announced the availability of contracts to analyze the potential of boost-phase intercept systems that could be deployed by 2005. In my opinion, that is progress.

RICHARD L. GARWIN

Council on Foreign Relations

New York, New York

rgarwin@cfr. …

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