New missile defense doesn't defend so well

Our missile defense shield technology so far has failed to hit and destroy an incoming dummy nuclear warhead in tests.

The failure raises fundamental questions regarding the usefulness of this very costly program.

George W. Bush says that if he wins the presidency, he will build a larger and more expensive program than the so-far failed program our military leaders currently propose.

Bill Clinton and his hopeful successor, Al Gore, afraid of looking weak, probably want to postpone the decision until they are sure that the technology works. If it does work, they would build a shield only large enough to shoot down missiles launched by so-called rogue nations.

Any size shield, however, has problems. First, it threatens the mutually assured destruction (MAD) balance that has kept nuclear war at bay since the end of World War II. Both the Russians and the Chinese claim that the missile defense shield is aimed at them and thus the shield will nullify the treaties that make MAD work. In other words, they claim the shield will make nuclear conflict more rather than less likely.

Second, many scientists argue that the technology of creating a bullet to hit another bullet is not feasible at this time. Three failures to date, they suggest, are convincing evidence of their convictions. Further, they note that it is cheaper and easier for the offense (those firing the missiles) to add features that make any defense more difficult.

At present, the system is designed to distinguish between one warhead and one decoy. The shield has not as yet passed this easiest of tests. As real warheads and numerous decoys increase, the ability of the shield missile to recognize its real targets becomes more problematical.

The only rogue nation that will have a ballistic missile that might be able to reach our shores by 2005 is North Korea. Even here the chance for peace between north and south on the Korean peninsula has become a real possibility.

Above all, it is unlikely that even rogue enemies would attack us with missiles whose origins are instantly identifiable. We would retaliate with atomic weapons that would wipe the rogue from the face of the earth.

It is more likely that those nations that would do us harm will use smaller nuclear weapons smuggled across our borders in packing crates marked as innocent consumer goods.

Terrorists might also employ biological toxins or poison gas to kill our civilian populations. In both these cases it would be difficult to identify those responsible.

In my view, the idea of a missile defense system is very beguiling. The thought that for $60 billion-plus we could assure our invulnerability to missiles fired at us by rogues (the Clinton argument) or by anyone (the Bush position) is very hard to resist. For 50 years we have lived uneasily with the fear of what a nuclear war might mean to all of us.

The missile defense shield will not provide us with the security we all desire. The technology may never work. Rogue nations are unlikely to use missiles to attack us.

And last, but not least, any missile defense system will make MAD, which since World War II has protected all nations from nuclear destruction, a less viable option. Living with MAD has never been totally comfortable. I believe living without it will be much worse.

(Justin Green wrote about and taught politics for 25 years before retiring to Prescott.)