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Hit to Kill:
The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack by Bradley Graham cover of graham's book

Bradley Graham offers a contemporary report on the quest for a national missile defense in his 2001 book Hit to Kill: The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack. A veteran military and foreign affairs correspondent for The Washington Post, Graham says that the story is both complex and contentious and gives his assessment of the current Bush administration's strategy. "Given how frustratingly elusive the dream of a nationwide antimissile system has proven," Graham writes, "the confidence and determination that Bush and his advisers have continued to bring to the endeavor has been all the more impressive -- or foolhardy, depending on which side of the argument one is on."

Here is the afterword to Graham's book. He addresses, among other things, how the Sept. 11 attacks have affected the arguments for and against missile defense.

From Bradley Graham's Hit to Kill: The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack (Public Affairs, 2001). Reprinted with permission.


Just as a new set of political and diplomatic showdowns over missile defense appeared to be taking shape under the Bush administration, terrorists seized four commercial airliners on September 11, 2001. They flew two into the World Trade Center towers and another into the Pentagon; the fourth jet crashed in a Pennsylvania forest. The astonishing assault on the nation's financial and military centers, which resulted in more than 5,000 [sic] dead, marked the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. It jolted the United States into declaring an all-out war against terrorism, raising what had been a comparatively low-grade counterterrorist effort by military and law enforcement agencies into a high-profile national campaign. Greater attention to securing the American homeland against attack promised to be as much a part of the new war as rooting out terrorists abroad and eliminating their sources of support. But what this intensified focus on homeland defense would mean specifically for national missile defense was not immediately clear.

Critics argued that the terrorist strikes in New York and Washington proved Bush had been concentrating on the wrong threat. They said the United States had much more to fear from low-tech terrorism than a high-tech missile attack, so the money that the administration had planned to spend on missile defense should be diverted to counterterrorism activities. But the lesson from the attacks seemed to cut more than one way. While the events of September 11 certainly underscored U.S. vulnerability to threats other than missile attack, it also made a case for protecting American cities by all available means, including missile defense. "Can anyone doubt that if the terrorists behind Tuesday's attacks had had access to a ballistic missile, they would have used it?" the Wall Street Journal asked in an editorial. "Why settle for toppling the World Trade Center if you can destroy all of New York in an instant, without having to go to the trouble of sneaking a crew over the border and arranging for pilot training in Florida?"

Funding both a crackdown on terrorism and a buildup in missile defenses would have been problematic before the September 11 attacks. But in the immediate aftermath, the financial constraints appeared to recede. Democrats who had moved previously to cut the administration's $8.3 billion request for missile defense and attach conditions to ensure that testing would remain within the terms of the ABM Treaty sounded inclined to avoid a partisan wrangle and let Bush's initiative proceed, at least for the time being. Missile defense seemed destined to lose some of its prominence as the administration's dominant military project, forced to share the stage with the new war on terrorism. But the administration showed little inclination to scale back the program.

Indeed, given how frustratingly elusive the dream of a nationwide antimissile system has proven, the confidence and determination that Bush and his advisers have continued to bring to the endeavor has been all the more impressive -- or foolhardy, depending on which side of the argument one is on. At a minimum, the fresh investment of billions of dollars -- not to mention a major chunk of presidential political capital -- has raised the stakes: either Bush and his fellow missile defense enthusiasts will win big, or they will fail spectacularly.

Bill Clinton sought to limit the cost of his missile defense venture by proposing to keep it imbedded in a revised ABM Treaty. Militarily, his strategy was intended to be just enough to deal with an emerging Third World threat without upsetting the strategic balance with Russia. Politically, it was an effort to neutralize whatever partisan advantage the Republicans might derive from the missile defense issue, without incurring too much expense or inciting too much international opposition. Some in the Bush administration, including the president himself, are convinced that Clinton structured his approach with no real intention of succeeding -- a kind of poison pill for national missile defense. The proposed land-based system for midcourse intercepts would never have provided an adequate defense, they say. The question of whether to go forward with it was made contingent on too many conditions. And U.S. diplomacy was conducted in a way destined to array Russia, China and NATO governments against the program.

This is too cynical a view. While most members of Clinton's national security team never had their hearts in the program, they genuinely thought for a time that they had a shot at a complex three-part deal -- what Sandy Berger labeled the trifecta -- involving Russian agreement to amend the ABM Treaty, U.S. deployment of a modest missile defense system and a U.S.-Russian pact on deeper cuts in offensive nuclear weapons. The political backing for such an approach was manifested in the 1999 Missile Defense Act, which endorsed a limited system if built in the context of new arms reduction talks with Russia. The overwhelming vote for that measure marked only the third time, following legislation in 1969 and 1991, that Democratic lawmakers had gone on record with Republicans favoring a national antimissile system.

But as in the past, the fragile consensus quickly unraveled in the face of fresh doubts about the technical feasibility and costs of the envisioned system, as well as second thoughts about the net impact of a deployment on foreign relations and global security. For the Clinton administration, missile defense turned into a strenuous exercise in damage control and deployment avoidance.

If Clinton's handling of the issue did anything to advance the cause of missile defense, it was at least to alert the rest of the world that the United States was again serious about the issue. Nearly a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, Democrats as well as Republicans were questioning nuclear deterrence doctrine, the notion that the best defense was a strong, stable offense. By stirring the rest of the world to start focusing on new missile threats and old treaties, Clinton helped set the stage for Bush, even if the two men had sharply different views about how to proceed.

Clearly, the ABM Treaty's days are numbered. Whether it will be revised or replaced altogether, the treaty, conceived in a bipolar world, no longer addresses today's reality, where the ability to build long-range missiles and arm them with deadly warheads is spreading. Of course, the danger may not be spreading quite as fast as some missile defense advocates suggest. No Third World country can yet threaten the U.S homeland with an ICBM; even those given the greatest chance of doing so soonest are relying on facilities and technologies that are primitive by U.S. standards; and the leading threat case, North Korea, has shown a willingness to drop its whole effort in return for financial assistance from the United States. Nevertheless, the trend is worrisome. Even if North Korea could be taken out of the picture, other rogue nations -- Iran, Iraq, and Libya -- may prove still more determined to acquire a substantial nuclear and missile capability. This is owed in no small measure to their location in a region of the world where weapons of mass destruction already exist.

Then again, if a rogue state came to possess an ICBM, would it actually fire at the United States? That question still generates much controversy, although in a way it seems almost beside the point. Missile defense critics contend that no Third World dictator would be crazy enough to invite annihilation by blasting an American city; since the threat of nuclear retaliation worked against the Soviets, so the argument goes, it will work against new nuclear powers. By contrast, the pro-missile defense crowd says that reliance solely on a mutual suicide pact to keep the peace was risky and nutty to begin with and is even more so now.

But the more subtle point often ignored in this debate is that the mere fact of possession will surely have an impact. If a missile-aspiring state becomes capable of launching a warhead across the Pacific or Atlantic, it will not need to shoot to arouse the United States. Simply its ability to do so will affect how future U.S. administrations respond to that country or to regional crises that might bring the United States into conflict with it.

The rogue states themselves appear to understand this. How else to explain the sizeable investment of their limited resources in missile production -- particularly considering, as often noted, that a suitcase bomb or truck-borne explosive would be a more effective means of attack? Indeed, for Bush himself, the idea of an antimissile shield is tied less to the thought of ever needing to use it and more to allowing America to act abroad without fear of subjecting Americans at home to attack. "You can't be an internationalist if you allow yourself to be blackmailed," the president said in an interview. "If you believe like I believe that our values are so good and we can spread those values in a way that hopefully is not arrogant -- in a humble way -- if you believe that's important, which I do, then the corollary is: How do you make sure you're able to do that without somebody saying, 'If you move, if you act, if you decide to get involved, we'll blow you up'?"

Which is not to say that the United States has lost its own ability to threaten to blow others up. Its own nuclear deterrent is hardly obsolete. But it need no longer, for doctrinal reasons, automatically exclude missile defense. In fact, antimissile systems are best seen not as a replacement for traditional deterrence but as a potential supplement.

So if strategic theory has ceased to pose the obstacle it once did to a national missile defense, why not forge ahead? Because two other critical considerations continue to make the whole endeavor exceedingly challenging if not entirely dubious: technical feasibility and cost. The history of missile defense is littered with exaggerated claims of progress, coupled to assurances that a workable system requires just a little more testing and engineering. To be fair, some significant advances have occurred, particularly in hit-to-kill technology. But going from demonstrations to a combat-ready operational system has proven much tougher than expected, even for the land-based, midcourse intercept approach on which the Pentagon has concentrated in recent years. So vexing have some of the problems become that the Pentagon has begun talking with defense contractors about designing back-up versions for the kill vehicle and booster in case the frontrunners fail to shake their bugs. Other missile defense options -- ship-based missiles with midcourse interceptors or a boost-phase system of airborne lasers or sea-launched interceptors -- have attracted renewed interest within the Bush administration. But while these alternative approaches may look appealing on paper, they have yet to start even the most elemental flight testing, and they all have potentially show-stopping challenges to overcome.

Bush's plan to test a broad range of possible systems offers greater promise than Clinton's single-solution architecture of eventually finding an optimum technical design, if one is to be found. But the cost of all this experimenting is sure to be substantial, jeopardizing the financing of other military projects more popular with senior military commanders. Very likely, all the testing and new scientific research will affirm that no single silver-bullet solution to missile defense exists, that boost-phase intercept systems face countermeasure challenges just as midcourse systems do, and that an effective antimissile shield will require a mix of systems, thereby raising the price tag for any deployment.

Asked in the summer of 2001 if he had any limit in mind for financing missile defense development, Bush named no dollar figure but indicated that the cost would be constrained by his own desire to avoid tapping Social Security surpluses and engaging in deficit spending. Those constraints may have crumbled in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, although the need to finance the new war on terrorism could impose its own discipline on missile defense spending. Pressed on what his own criteria will be for deciding what kind of antimissile system to build, the president replied: "Here are the criteria: Does it work? Is it cost effective? And how does it fit into the priorities of the United States?" He faulted Clinton for imposing too many criteria on his own deployment decision. "I do not believe the previous administration was serious about missile defense," he said. "I do not think they really wanted to move forward and explore all options. This is a world where, if you lay out enough criteria, something will never happen."

Clinton, in turn, said he felt "some sympathy" for Bush's own situation, portraying the new president and his advisers as under pressure from many in their own party to pursue a missile defense system. "One of the problems they've got is, for so many of their supporters, this is a matter of theology, not evidence. Because President Reagan was once for it, they think it must be right, and they've got to do it, and I think it makes it harder for them to see some of the downsides. It's a part of the theology of being a Republican."

In any event, Bush team members have indicated that even if something does not work completely, they may be willing to put it in the field, believing some weapon is better than none and improvements will come over time. Thus, while their vision for a multi-layered network of boost-phase, midcourse, and terminal-phase interceptors is far more elaborate than Clinton's proposed architecture, they actually have lowered the bar for what it will take to go operational. Under the circumstances, BMDO officials figure they either must manage to start constructing some kind of antimissile system in the next few years or acknowledge that missile defense simply is not meant to be. "If we can't succeed this time, we might as well hang it up," remarked Ron Kadish, the BMDO director.

The sense of urgency in the Bush administration's assault on the technical hurdles is also evident in its drive to discard the treaty constraints. Its threat to act unilaterally if it cannot gain Russia's acquiescence to replacing the ABM Treaty runs the risk of ruptured relations with a number of foreign powers and the strengthening of alliances contrary to American interests. Sealing a strategic partnership in July, for instance, the leaders of Russia and China suggested that unilateral action by America could drive them into an ever-closer embrace. At the same time, Russia and China arguably need the United States more than they need each other, as Bush administration officials noted in adopting a pose of indifference toward the Russian-Chinese action, the first friendship treaty between the two countries since the 1950s. Indeed, later in July, Vladimir Putin emerged from a meeting with Bush in Italy expressing a new openness toward talks on missile defense in the context of deeper reductions in offensive weapons. While Clinton had sought the same linkage, the Russians had been unwilling even to enter negotiations about defensive systems.

Now that Putin appears more inclined to bargain, he confronts a Bush administration that has raised the ante, both by proposing a more ambitious missile defense system and by making clear that it has little desire to enter into the kind of detailed, rigid accords that marked past arms control negotiations between Washington and Moscow. Clinton's stated purpose in seeking negotiations with Russia had been to strengthen the ABM Treaty. Bush's objective is to do away not simply with the treaty but with the kind of set-piece arms control process practiced by Republicans and Democrats alike for forty years.

There is something appealingly bold about Bush's call for a new strategic framework. With the prospect of a U.S.-Russian nuclear conflict now far less likely than during the cold war, detailed treaties stipulating the exact balance of warheads between the two powers are no longer central to global stability. But the administration still lacks many answers to questions about how its new world order would function and how everyone would get there from here. And the rest of the world will need much reassuring. Advocates of the traditional treaty-based process argue that arms agreements have secured stable relations for decades by spelling out rights and responsibilities and that even if old accords need updating, living under them is far safer than living in a world without any laws. While European allies have increasingly accepted the notion that the ABM Treaty should be revised or updated, they are reluctant to get rid of it without seeing some alternative accord take its place.

Bush's contention that in today's more unpredictable world, America should be freer to lower -- or raise -- its nuclear arsenals and build whatever defenses it sees fit naturally adds to suspicions that the new administration's real aim goes beyond fending off missile attacks from emerging missile powers. By challenging the fundamental worth of the old treaty-writing process, Bush and his advisers engender fears in some that their ultimate purpose is to foster even greater U.S. military dominance and strategic hegemony. The sheer scale of Bush's missile defense undertaking may well overwhelm the prospects for keeping an eventual system within limited bounds and constrained by any new agreement with Russia.

Some of Bush's principal advisers contend that the new administration must remain aggressive if it stands any chance of overcoming the hindrances and inertia of the past. In this view, simply a modified ABM Treaty would not be enough to encourage the kind of investment in alternative antimissile systems they envision. But by the summer of 2001, even some leading moderate lawmakers within the Republican Party were beginning to express unease at the prospect of the administration giving the Russians only a few months to choose between replacing the treaty or watching the United States withdraw from it. They were urging Bush to take a more gradual two-phase approach that could entail acceptance of an amended treaty followed by longer-term negotiations on an entirely new strategic framework.

However they proceed, Bush and his advisers must demonstrate that they can replace the cold war security order with something that increases rather than detracts from global security. They must reassure the rest of the world that they are indeed focused narrowly on defending the United States from attack from a rogue state rather than embarking on a new quest for strategic advantage over Russia or China. They must keep the Europeans from feeling estranged, and they must ensure that their efforts will dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing missile programs, not drive them into a new arms race.

In short, in Clinton's words, they must show that missile defense can work "not only technically but politically."

Reflecting on his own experience with this most nettlesome of U.S. military ventures, the former president offered this final thought: "It was hard. That's another thing I'd say. A lot of these things were really hard. We were trying to do things where we couldn't know with great precision what was right. You spend all this money on research for something that may or may not ever work; even if it works, you may decide that the cost of putting it in is greater than the benefit because it leads to a nuclear buildup in other countries, or because if you did that, you wouldn't adequately be addressing far more likely security threats. There are a lot of issues here. We were out there in the far reaches dealing with this."

From Hit to Kill: The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack (Public Affairs, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Bradley Graham. Reprinted with permission.

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