Ask the Expert: July-August 2001


How viable is the Bush administration’s proposed missile defense?

It is technologically daunting but probably doable to build a National Missile Defense (NMD) system that can provide meaningful protection against the kinds of missile threats that the North Koreas and Iraqs of the world can generate for the foreseeable future. Enemies would try to defeat the system (just as we would try to counter those efforts), but in virtually every scenario, the system would protect more U.S. cities than are protected now.

The principal value of NMD is that it would help protect U.S. citizens in the unlikely but catastrophic eventuality that deterrence against a rogue state fails—and it would do so without markedly increasing the likelihood of an attack against the U.S. in the first place. Critics of the program exaggerate the ease with which rogue states could overcome a layered NMD system. But the most optimistic backers of the program likewise minimize the technological challenge of making the system at least minimally effective.

By all accounts, the system will be expensive. It will seriously constrain other defense spending, impinge upon discretionary spending on non-defense programs, and (unless the economy rebounds) may even bump up against the tax cuts in the out years. 

But one must at least consider the costs of doing nothing. If a collapsing North Korea launches a Samson-option strike, would we be glad that we didn’t “waste” money on an NMD system? The government has a moral duty to take prudent steps to protect the population from grave threats. On the other hand, if the NMD program diverts resources and attention away from other likely threats, including other threats involving weapons of mass destruction, then we may be worse off. On balance, NMD only makes sense if it is part of a comprehensive strategy for meeting global security needs. 

Our NATO allies are likely to make the Bush administration pay a heavy price in exchange for their support. On this issue, European publics have not moved much from where they were at the height of the Cold War—they still believe arms-control measures, however weakly enforced, are the best way to address security threats. The Russians and especially the Chinese will probably never truly support it and the costs of getting their tacit acquiescence will be high. The biggest problem is that these international political costs must be paid up front while the security benefits are only realized in the future. 

NMD is not going to fundamentally change the arms-race dynamic with the Chinese. The Chinese have already embarked on a massive military modernization program aimed at challenging the United States’ position in Asia and nothing we do short of total capitulation and retreat from the western Pacific is likely to stop it. The same critics who claim that NMD would compel China to unleash an arms race to preserve the Chinese deterrent also claim that NMD is not worth doing because it is easily defeated with cheap, low-tech spoofing techniques that even the North Koreans can master.

—Peter Feaver is an associate professor of political science and an expert on American foreign policy and national security

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor