Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Prudence on National Missile Defense

Lynn Robinson


November 19, 2001

In the aftermath of September 11, national missile defense (NMD) has been taken off the table by almost everyone except President Bush, and the President is still talking about it with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. For some, who want to demote NMD, the reason is the immediate need for greater counter-terrorism efforts. For others, NMD has been and remains a dangerous and costly boondoggle.

I want to argue that NMD is certainly not a panacea, but prudently pursued it can be a valuable national security tool.

The opponents of NMD raise three fears: a treaty violation, a potential arms race, and a possible technological failure. The greatest barrier to NMD is the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. During the first Bush administration the United States came very close to renegotiating the ABM treaty with Russia to permit a type of NMD called the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system. The GPALS sys-tem was more ambitious in scope than the limited land-based NMD proposal made by the later Clinton ad-ministration, a program thought to be compliant with the ABM Treaty. Today, the current Bush administration must reassure Russia that its NMD plans will not undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent, a fear that could trigger an arms race. A limited system, say U.S. negotiators, which defends against the threat of a few missiles from a rogue state or non-state actor is not a shield against a full-scale nuclear assault by Russia or China. President Putin now appears to agree. China also must be given assurances and convinced of our motives. Yet whatever Russia and China say, the ABM treaty does not have a constitutional status. If the treaty no longer provides adequate security for the United States, then a different treaty must be negotiated.

A third fear concerns the NMD technology. Opponents of missile defense taunt advocates for at-tempting to build a new Maginot Line, a costly and easily overwhelmed defense. Of course, NMD cannot defend against short-range missiles or terrorist attacks, so other elements of national security must be in place. But if NMD can limit the possibility of a rogue state or non-state actor decimating an American city with a missile, then it is worth pursuing. However, the current limitations of the ABM treaty prevent the U.S. from fully testing NMD technology, which brings us back to the legal barrier of the treaty that impedes the development necessary for deployment.

NMD opponents bludgeon proponents with the sanctity of the ABM Treaty, possible arms races, and technological limitations. However, these fears should not end the debate. A new treaty can allow a variety of NMD systems to be properly tested and give time to allay the fears of those who might otherwise feel the need to rush to an arms race.

The greatest challenge facing the current Bush administration is how to make the case for NMD among other military funding priorities. A range of NMD options is available for consideration. A land and space-based capability was proposed by the previous Bush administration. A different land-based sys-tem was proposed by the Clinton administration. It is time to discuss all NMD possibilities, both old and new, and how they fit with new security priorities.

A limited NMD capability supporting other defensive options is neither idolatrous nor stupid. The time has come to rethink America's national security options, renegotiate outdated treaties, and develop better technologies. The question is not whether we should develop and deploy NMD, but what kind of NMD and what kind of security arrangements the United States should have. Let's get on with it.

—Lynn D. Robinson, Director of Education
    Intercollegiate Studies Institute


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”