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Do We Need a National Missile Defense?


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Think Tank is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan began a national debate about a national missile defense system, dubbed star wars. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. Do we still need national missile defense? It's an election year, and it's an election issue. Our guests today have reached different answers to that question. Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and is currently working on a new book, Technological Change And The Future Of Warfare. He recently wrote an article in Foreign Affairs entitled Star Wars Strikes Back. George Lewis is associate director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. He recently coauthored an article in Foreign Policy titled National Missile Defense An Indefensible System. And Frank Gaffney, the director of the Center for Security Policy, and a former assistant Secretary of Defense for international security policy, during the Reagan administration. The topic before the house, do we need a national missile defense, this week on Think Tank.

(Musical break.)

FORMER PRESIDENT REAGAN (From video): I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

MR. WATTENBERG: In the almost two decades since Ronald Reagan first proposed the strategic defense initiative, called star wars, the world has changed. The Berlin Wall was torn down, the Soviet Union, the chief nuclear threat to the United States no longer exists. But, proponents of a national missile defense say the United States and its allies still face some potential nuclear threats. On a small scale, these come from rogue states like Iraq and North Korea. Up a step, the Chinese have an important nuclear fleet. And Russia, although no longer an adversarial super power, still has a super power's nuclear arsenal. But, those who say no to a national missile defense system argue that it would be too costly, that it might not ever work, and that it could antagonize a Russia in the midst of a tumultuous transition.

For the record, the United States currently does have one operating missile defense system, the Patriot, which Americans saw in action during the Gulf War. But, that is part of what is called theater missile defense, a local system designed to knock down short range missiles. That system is fairly uncontroversial, unlike the broader national missile defense. We've asked our experts to help us get to the nucleus of the matter.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. The first question, to set sort of a factual groundwork, let us begin with you, George, and go around the table, what is the threat now to the United States?

MR. LEWIS: Talking in terms of national missile defense, I think you summarized it well. I mean, there continues to be a Russian arsenal, which we don't view as adversary, but it's still there. China has a smaller arsenal capable of reaching the U.S. And there is a slow growth of capability in the Third World of technologies that could in the future, people debate over how quickly, could lead to a firing a missile capability, capable of reaching the U.S.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Michael, is that about it, or is there some bells and whistles that ought to go with that?

MR. O'HANLON: I think that's a good summary of the technical landscape. There's also a political landscape, which is in what situation is it really plausible that someone would threaten us. And there are a couple of different kinds of concerns. One of them is sort of the crazy Russian officer who is not getting fed, and he's just mad and nihilistic, sort of an ultimate terrorist within Russia, in a sense. Another possibility is, let's say North Korea or Iraq starts another war, as each has against our friends in their respective regions in the past. Under those circumstances we would like to have the option of overthrowing their governments. We don't like the idea of just fighting back to a cease fire line in either one of these places again. But, once you start to threaten their capital cities and their regimes, it becomes more plausible for them to trot out the ultimate threat against you. And in that situation is sort of when you can believe that a missile threat might be the most plausible.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Frank?

MR. GAFFNEY: We have zero missile defense today. We have an array of countries, some of them that are actual missile wielding states, capable of threatening us at any time. China, by the way, has done so a couple of years back. We have a number of other countries --

MR. WATTENBERG: They did this when they shot that missile into --

MR. GAFFNEY: They were about to go in a ratcheting up of their pressure campaign against Taiwan. And a senior Chinese military officer, who was actually recently in Washington, told a senior American, we don't think Americans are going to interfere with this campaign, because American leaders care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan.

MR. WATTENBERG: And then your military hero, President Clinton, sent carriers down the strait?

MR. GAFFNEY: Congress told President Clinton to send carriers down and he did it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Congress is not the Commander in Chief.

MR. GAFFNEY: The problem that occurred subsequently is the problem that I think Michael is getting at, and that is we start seeing in the absence of missile defenses on the United States, political results from the kinds of threats that are present or emerging as countries dictate, in effect, whether it's China or North Korea, terms to us. And in the absence of defenses I believe we're seeing at least under this administration, and I suspect in the future administrations, as well, accommodations being made.

MR. LEWIS: China understands deterrents. Some people may argue that rogue states don't understand deterrents. The one thing rogue states understand is their leaders understand how to hold onto power. And there is no doubt that if they launch a ballistic missile attack on the United States they are not going to be in power. They understand that.

MR. WATTENBERG: They're going to be dead. They're going to be dead.

MR. GAFFNEY: But, the deterrents in one man's mind is blackmail in another's. I think what we were concerned about there was, they were deterring us from coming to the defense of democratic Taiwan. That is blackmail, and it has strategic implications.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, in that case at least it didn't work.

MR. GAFFNEY: Well, it worked in the sense that subsequently Bill Clinton went to China and essentially embraced the entire Chinese line on Taiwan. Yes, we did send carriers down. They nonetheless sent four missiles into the waters right off of Taiwan, which had no defense against them, and subsequently President Clinton back pedaled in ways that I think are strategically significant.

MR. O'HANLON: Well, I'm not quite as worried about China. I grant Frank's point that in broad terms you can devise scenarios that would be of a troublesome nature, regarding almost any country, certainly including China. I'm really a little more worried about North Korea and Iraq. I really think that these are countries that, as George says, do understand deterrents, but in the end they may be willing, if they decide they can get away with an aggression, and make that mistake, that we prove them wrong, and we want to take out these regimes, North Korea has been presiding over mass starvation of its own people, the world would be a much better place if North Korea's regime was gone, the same thing of course with Saddam Hussein. Right now I don't believe it warrants the loss of American life to overthrow those regimes. But, if they start another war, I think we'd like to finish the job. We don't want them to have the ultimate ability to blackmail us, deter us from doing so by threatening a nuclear strike. So, for me, that's the most compelling scenario.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. So you have, as we like to say, an uncertain world, where we are the super-duper power, but we can be threatened on a macro level, on a sub-macro level, and even as we hear on a micro level. Ergo, what do we do about it, and again, let's have a brief opener, then we can talk about it.

Frank, we'll go around the room this way.

MR. GAFFNEY: Well, I would not do what President Clinton is proposing to do, which is to put a small number of missile interceptors in Alaska, which will not protect all of the United States, and will not protect much of the country against much of an attack.

MR. WATTENBERG: This is --

MR. GAFFNEY: This is the so-called national missile defense system that he might decide to deploy sometime in the summer.

MR. WATTENBERG: Summer of the year 2000.

MR. GAFFNEY: Correct. I would, instead, adapt the infrastructure that the American people have already bought and paid for, which is 55 ships known as Egis cruisers and destroyers, that represent essentially the makings of a global anti-missile capability. We're currently at a very low level and slow pace adapting them to shoot down short range missiles. I would immediately move to deploy much more capable systems aboard those ships to defend us at home, as well as our forces and allies overseas. A sea based missile defense that I think has a great deal more flexibility, it can be deployed, I believe, much faster, and it costs a fraction, because we've already bought the infrastructure.

MR. WATTENBERG: What's wrong with that?

MR. O'HANLON: Well, let me say that there are some good attributes to this idea. But, first of all, the Pentagon believes it would be -- the Pentagon has looked at it, and was taken enough by the analysis that was done by the Heritage Foundation study group, to consider this idea very seriously. They think, however, it would be a much more difficult thing to develop technologically, that it would take longer, and be much more expensive. But, it still may be, in the longer term, a useful adjunct to what they're developing now.

MR. WATTENBERG: So they are looking in there, and in the national missile defense at, to begin with, a land based system in Alaska. So that's basically North Korea is what you're talking about.

MR. GAFFNEY: China, perhaps some Russia.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yes, but I mean --

MR. GAFFNEY: But, not much coming --

MR. O'HANLON: It has the theoretical capability.

MR. WATTENBERG: Right. So they think it's -- the Pentagon thinks it's a good idea, but not a good enough idea to go all the way on that?

MR. O'HANLON: That's right, then there's also the big other dimension of this, which is the U.S.-Russia arms control dimension. And I would probably tend to agree with Frank that we shouldn't put traditional arms control necessarily on such a high mantra that we use it as a way to block missile defense. However, I am worried about Russia's nuclear weapon safety and security, and I want to keep going, these U.S.-Russian collaborative programs that help us consolidate, protect, secure Russian nuclear weapons. And I think those could be in jeopardy if we deploy too big of a defense too fast.

MR. WATTENBERG: Who here feels capable of giving a brief and neutral summary of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, so that we can factually know what it is that Michael was just talking about. Can you do it?

MR. LEWIS: The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty forbids both the U.S. and Russia from deploying a national defense of their entire country. I mean, I think that's the --

MR. WATTENBERG: That was passed in 1973?

MR. LEWIS: Signed and ratified in '72.


MR. LEWIS: And there's other prohibitions, but that's the main issue, that you cannot deploy a national missile defense.

MR. WATTENBERG: You can research it, and you can --

MR. LEWIS: You can research it, you can develop it, some development. You can deploy a single site for a limited defense of a limited area.

MR. GAFFNEY: In our case in North Dakota.

MR. LEWIS: Or you could move it to D.C.

MR. WATTENBERG: Does that make it more or less dangerous to live here, if you have the --

MR. LEWIS: That's a controversial point.

MR. WATTENBERG: When Ronald Reagan promulgated the idea of star wars, it was said that that violated the ABM Treaty. Is that right?

MR. GAFFNEY: It would have. It was a territorial defense. And, in fact, I think all of the approaches that we're now talking about would, as well.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, Reagan didn't violate the treaty on his watch, even if -- I mean, he would still have been developing it and researching it. Had it ever reached fruition, then it would have violated it. Is that the idea? So it was a proposal that would in the long run involve some negotiation between the United States and the Soviet Union, in theory?

MR. LEWIS: I think Reagan -- I don't think Reagan saw this as something that we would modify the treaty. I think he saw this as something that would supplant the whole idea behind it.

MR. WATTENBERG: And he would legally serve notice and get out of the ABM Treaty?

MR. GAFFNEY: Sure, we're entitled to do that under the treaty. But, the larger question is, if the other party to the treaty went away, you mentioned in your intro that some changes have taken place since 1972, not the least of which is that there is no Soviet Union. It was formally and officially dismantled. And legal analysis that I believe is beyond reproach concludes that under international law in these kinds of circumstances you have to create a new treaty in order for a new party, in this case Russia, to supplant the old Soviet Union.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you guys buy that?

MR. GAFFNEY: It's not the same country, it's not the same geography, it's not the same capabilities. And therefore you have to have new understandings with them, and we don't have them yet.

MR. WATTENBERG: Michael, what's wrong with that?

MR. O'HANLON: Well, Russia has taken on many of the international treaty obligations of the former Soviet Union. So one can have this legal debate, but for me I would rather focus on the political fundamentals. The SDI program of Reagan was competitive, vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. It was designed and some would argue was successful in essentially defeating the Soviet Union in one way or another. Today most of us who support missile defense deployment want to do it in a way that's cooperative with Russia, provided of course that Russia is willing to talk and compromise. But, it's not a competitive relationship vis-a-vis Russia for most of us anymore in the missile defense question.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is it competitive in your view?

MR. GAFFNEY: Well, it's competitive in the sense that the Russians continue to say that they want the United States to have no missile defense. They do not see any reason to change the ABM Treaty. They do not support the deployment of an American missile defense. I think this is particularly galling, since they actually have one of their own, not just the legal one, an illegal one.

MR. WATTENBERG: The one in Krasnoyarsk?

MR. GAFFNEY: No, they had a radar that they subsequently took down, one around Moscow.

MR. LEWIS: They have a legal one.

MR. WATTENBERG: They have a legal one.

MR. LEWIS: Right.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do we have a legal one?

MR. GAFFNEY: We have none, zero, zero.

MR. LEWIS: We built it briefly, and then we operated it for a few months in 1975, then we turned it off.


MR. LEWIS: North Dakota.

MR. GAFFNEY: But, Ben, the point is that today we now have, thanks to the publication of memoirs and other Soviet era documents, the testimony of the people who designed the then Soviet missile defense system, and they make it absolutely clear that what they were building was not just a legal system around Moscow, but a comprehensive, territorial defense, using what were described to us as, nominally legal as air defense interceptors.

MR. WATTENBERG: Can you view the system you're talking about, this sea based system, as one that the Russians, not the Soviets, the Russians could benefit from and could cooperate with, or is this just saying you're out of here?

MR. GAFFNEY: I think it could conceivably be the case that they could cooperate with us and benefit from it, if they are, in fact, no longer going to oppose the American people being defended from the potential threats that, let's be honest, are emanating from countries that we regard as rogues, and the Russians regard as clients. These are countries that China is selling missiles to, North Korea is itself selling missiles to, the Russians are providing missile technology to. They have an interest, in short, in keeping us vulnerable, because it keeps the value of their export commodity, which is missile technology, higher. They do not have an interest in sharing our technology, I believe, or cooperating with us.

MR. LEWIS: I think many people -- I think there's a certain wing of people who are supportive of missile defense, who would like to see it proceed cooperatively with Russia. Clearly, that's not what's happening now. For example, the current administration it's not like they went to Russia and said, let's talk about how -- you know, we have this problem with North Korea, we want to solve it with a missile defense. Let's talk about how we can do this in a way that won't disrupt our relationship. Instead, we went to them and said, this is what we're doing, you agree to it, or we withdraw from the treaty. That's not the kind of thing that's going to lead to cooperation. Maybe cooperation with Russia will be possible, maybe it won't, it's not the way we're going.

MR. GAFFNEY: But, if you're really interested in cooperation with Russia honestly, having dealt with them at some length during the period I was in the Reagan administration, I think it's clear, if we make it known to them we're going ahead, we're deploying this, they will understand that then there is a system perhaps with which they can cooperate. At the moment, they are in a position, amazingly enough, I think incredible even to them, of vetoing our program by s8-

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