Feature

Warding off a missile attack

The Bush administration has proposed a missile shield as a cornerstone of a new defense program that will protect the U.S. from attacks from “rogue” states. Why is the shield so controversial both here and abroad?

What is the missile shield?

The National Missile Defense shield is a proposed weapons system designed to spot incoming enemy warheads and shoot them down. It is the latest incarnation of the

$30 billion Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was first proposed by President Reagan in the 1980s and came to be popularly known as “Star Wars.”

Without the Cold War, does the U.S. really need missile defense?

A shield is even more important today than it was in the 1980s, says Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In 1998, a commission chaired by Rumsfeld, then a private citizen, concluded that missiles from “rogue states” like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq posed a serious danger. So the Clinton administration proposed committing another $60 billion to develop a scaled-down program using antimissile rockets fired from the ground, without the futuristic space-based weapons Reagan had envisioned. Last September, after failed tests cast doubt on whether the system would work, Clinton decided to leave it up to his successor to decide whether to deploy it.

What is President Bush’s proposal?

Bush envisions a more ambitious and expensive plan than Clinton contemplated, one with a global reach. The first phase would employ a handful of interceptor missiles on the ground in Alaska. Next, the Navy would add about 50 interceptors on two ships equipped with Aegis missile-tracking radar. The ships could be placed near enough to enemy nations to take out missiles just after blastoff, when experts say they’re easier to hit. More than a decade down the road, the complete system would include hundreds of interceptors and lasers fired from air, sea, land, and space. Government estimates of a working system’s price tag run from $80 billion to $120 billion over 25 years, although critics say the cost could hit $1 trillion.

Would such a shield work?

Experts strongly disagree. The Bush administration is optimistic, despite a test failure in July of an experimental missile-defense system, when the so-called “kill vehicle” failed to separate from its booster rocket. The administration says a system that could swat away several missiles could be installed in the “near term.” With proper research and commitment, many conservative supporters say, the technological obstacles could be overcome in the same way NASA put a man on the moon, just nine years after President John F. Kennedy made it a national goal. Critics say the missile shield is “faith-based defense,” likening the blasting of an incoming missile to hitting a bullet with a bullet. The technology to produce a working shield doesn’t exist, and even if it did, too much could go wrong. A rocket could malfunction on liftoff. Computer programs that guide interceptors to their mark could crash. Many opponents say rogue nations are not likely to attack the U.S. with missiles anyway. Why bother firing a missile when you can easily put a nuclear bomb in a suitcase and leave it on Main Street in any U.S. city? That way, the U.S. couldn’t even tell which nation was responsible for the attack, and so would be prevented from counterattacking.

Why does the president believe the shield is needed?

Even if the shield can’t provide perfect protection, the administration says, it makes perfect sense to reduce the risk of a strike against U.S. citizens. Bush also argues that the shield will make the world a safer place by reducing America’s need for offensive nuclear arms. With the shield, the U.S. could safely afford to reduce its nuclear arsenal of 7,500 strategic warheads down to 2,000 or less. Bush adds that the shield would allow many weapons to be taken off high-alert status, thus reducing the risk of accidental launch. Experts project interceptors would have 70 percent accuracy at best, but Bush’s plan calls for a layered system that could shoot at a missile just after launch, in midflight, and again on its way down.

What do other nations say?

U.S. allies have had a mixed reaction. Great Britain and Israel say the shield is a good idea. Germany and France have argued against a defense shield, in part because a sheltered America would make an unsheltered Europe a more attractive target for attack. China has warned it would step up its nuclear program if the U.S. goes forward. Critics say that if China pumps up its nuclear capability, Japan and India will be forced to do the same. If India bulks up, Pakistan will too, and so on, until every nation with a nuclear neighbor will have jumped into the act. Russia, long an outspoken critic of missile-shield proposals, now says it is willing to at least talk to Bush about his plan.

Doesn’t a treaty forbid missile defense?

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