Missile Wars
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interview: jospeh cirincione
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Joseph Cirincione is director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 1985 to 1991, he served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee. Here, he tells FRONTLINE that the threat of ballistic missiles has been exaggerated; that technology itself, not the ABM Treaty, has been the true obstacle to developing an effective missile defense; and that the United States has diverted attention and resources to an illusory missile threat when it should have been focusing on the threat of terrorism. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Sherry Jones on May 13, 2002.

Proponents of missile defense seem to say that to be against missile defense is to be against protecting the United States, [against] protecting people in the United States.

If you ask the American people, "Do you want a missile defense system? Do you want to protect America from missile attack?" an overwhelming majority say, "Yes," just the way they would if you ask them, "Do you want a drug that will protect you from cancer? Do you want an alarm system that will protect you from burglars?" Of course they'll say yes. It's a question of how important this protection is. How does it rank in a person's priorities? For most of the public, it's not a high priority. They're not really worried about being attacked with a bolt out of the blue, [with a] missile attack.

But the proponents of missile defense prey on the fears of people. They spin these elaborate, however illogical, scenarios of a madman or a terrorist group or an unknown country or group acquiring an ICBM and using it to attack the United States. And you say that it would be irresponsible for the president not to provide protection if we could; of course, there's the rub. Can we? Is it really feasible? Can you really do this? After a good 40 years of trying and over $100 billion, we still don't have an answer. We don't have much to show for all our efforts.

It hasn't been for lack of trying. We have tried to build a missile defense system. Efforts began after the first V-2 slammed into London. People have been working on this problem for a very long time. We've had some of the best minds in our country trying to come up with a ballistic defense system, and failing. We don't have a system. We're not close to having a system. We don't have an architecture for a system.

It'll be another 10 years before we know if anything we're even thinking about will actually work. Yet the myth endures. The belief that we can do this is not fazed by the technological failings. It's not fazed by the cost of the research. There is this almost religious belief that we can do this, and if we can do this, we must do this. That's what propels the proponents, and that's what's kept this illusion alive for decades.

You mentioned [that] some of the best minds in the country have tried to create this defense, and some of those best minds are now among the leading skeptics. What should that tell us?

At some point, reality prevails. At some point, when you try and you try and you try and you fail, you come to the conclusion that you can't do this, or at least you can't do this now.

That's why there's so much scientific skepticism about missile defense. That's why there's so much military skepticism about missile defense. The push for missile defense doesn't come from the Joint Chiefs; it never has. It doesn't come from the military; they're much more interested in ships and planes and tanks and useful defense resources. They're worried that if we spend too much on missile defense, we'll suck the funds away from things they can actually use.

It really comes from the ideologues, from the political forces who see this as a useful technique to attack the other party or to push a larger agenda.

You first went to work for the House Armed Services Committee in 1985. Tell me a little bit about that moment in time.

I joined the House Armed Services Committee staff in January 1985. One of the first briefings I got was on President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. I remember the director of the staff bringing me in and saying that SDI, as it was called then, the "Star Wars" program, was going to change everything. It wasn't going to affect just our ability to protect the country from missiles, but to do any military mission. ... This was going to provide us with the capability to strike anywhere, anytime, at a moment's notice.

I'd love to have a missile defense system that really protected America. I'd love to have a cure for cancer. But some things are just beyond our technological capability.

There was tremendous enthusiasm for the system. President Reagan had spoken about it in such eloquent terms that it really overcame some of the initial skepticism that greeted his speech, and he sort of convinced everyone that this was going to happen.

In fact, the backlash to the Strategic Defense Initiative was the fear that it was really going to happen. It took several years before people began to realize that there was no "there" there, that there wasn't a system ready to go -- that, despite Edward Teller's claims that back at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory he had a device that could destroy the entire first wave of Soviet SS-18 warheads -- there was no magic weapon.

The Excalibur laser was the one he was talking about. But people were talking about directed energy weapons in space or on the ground -- lasers for tactical use, lasers for strategic use. Gradually, it became clear that there were formidable technological obstacles to those. A study done in 1987 by the American Physical Society finally laid that to rest. They concluded it would take 20 years before we knew whether such weapons were ever feasible. Emphasis shifted from those magic Star Wars-type weapons to what's called "kinetic kill" vehicles, trying to hit a bullet with a bullet, trying to slam an intercept rocket into a missile.

Then, for more years, more money -- everything was funded, everything was tried; nothing worked. We thought when President Clinton was elected and the Cold War was now over that the missile defense programs would devolve into something more feasible, like trying to get the Patriot to work. Can you get a short-range system? Can you get a system that can at least shoot down Scuds, missiles that travel 100 miles or 200 miles? We thought the Patriot did that in the 1991 Gulf War. We realized later that it did not.

I spent about 10 months of my life investigating the performance of the Patriot missile in the Gulf War, and found out that it hit few, if any, Scuds. The basic agreement, among all the independent studies that have looked at it, is that it hit between zero and four Scuds out of about 44 that it tried to intercept. The Army defended the Patriot, but recognized that it had problems, and quietly set up a competition to develop a new missile for the Patriot. Only now -- 11, 12 years after the Gulf War -- are we fielding an improvement to the Patriot missile.

So here's the hard reality about missile defense, and this might tell you a lot of what you need to know: The hard truth is that, 11 years after the Gulf War, we still don't have a system that can defeat even Scuds. We do not have a theater system that can shoot down even the primitive short-range Scuds. We hope that the new improved Patriot system will do that, but it's still undergoing tests. It's only now starting to be deployed. We won't know for three or four years whether that works. So that gives you some idea of just how hard this mission is.

Tell me about the Gulf War, the Patriots and the political history of national missile defense at that moment during the Gulf War.

After the Gulf War in 1991, the ballistic missile program of the Reagan and Bush administrations had been in trouble. Funding was going down. Nothing was working. The Democrats were very skeptical in the Congress. The Republicans were very skeptical. We seemed to be at a dead end.

But when the Patriot seemed to work, when we had that first briefing from Riyadh that, for the first time in combat, a ballistic missile had been intercepted -- a claim that was later proven to be incorrect, but everybody thought it was true at the time -- well, missile defense stocks literally and figuratively rose dramatically. The perceived success of the Patriot was worth about a billion dollars for the SDI program that year. It jumped from a $3 billion appropriation to a $4 billion appropriation.

Then-Secretary of Defense Cheney came to Congress and testified that this shows that missile defense can work. President Bush made the famous claims then that 43 of 45 Scuds have been intercepted and destroyed -- a claim that's later proven to be completely wrong -- but nonetheless everybody thought it was true. Everybody thought that missile defense could work. So it gave the whole program, theater and strategic missile defense, a new lease on life, and cost us billions of dollars more in research and programs that still haven't proved to be viable.

So how do you explain the fact, once it was known that in fact the Patriots had been unsuccessful, that it didn't deter the proponents?

I don't think most people in the country realize even today that the Patriot didn't work. After all, we saw it with our own eyes. We all saw it happen on television. We saw missiles exploding, or what we thought were missiles exploding, in the night sky over Riyadh ... and Tel Aviv.

It turns out that the Patriot has a proximity fuse, [which] causes it to blow up near the Scud -- not necessarily hitting it. And it has a self-destructive fuse, so if it goes up and doesn't see a target, it also explodes. So there are all kinds of reasons why the Patriots were exploding but not actually hitting anything.

But that truth didn't come out for years, and then it came out in studies and in hearings, not on television. The power of that television image, the power of that myth of the Patriot success, proved to be very powerful indeed. Studies and scientific inquiries alone can't overcome the popular misperception.

So if we take 1991 and the Gulf War as a moment in the current resurrection of national missile defense -- I don't know if you agree with that or not, but --

Yes, it was a big turning point.

Then 1994 seemed to give it a jump-start -- the Contract with America. Can you talk a bit about that?

When President Clinton was elected, he did what many of the Joint Chiefs favored, which is to reorient the missile defense programs toward more practical theater defenses -- what's the military interested in? They're interested in defeating the threats that exist, short-range missiles, and doing it in an achievable way. So President Clinton reversed the priorities of Bush and Reagan, and started pumping money into theater missile defense systems like Patriot, and spending very little money on national missile defenses...

Theater missile defense is protecting troops in the field?

Right. Theater missile defenses, like Patriots, are designed for limited area defense, to protect troops in the field, or ports or airbases, from the short-range missiles that we actually encounter. The Joint Chiefs wrote a letter to the president, recommending that missile defense be approximately $2.8 billion a year, and of that, only $500 million a year should be spent on national missile defense.

So that's where we were going. Well, this infuriated some of the Republicans. Newt Gingrich, then a leading member in the House of Representatives, in his effort to enhance Republican election prospects in 1994, formed the Contract with America. The Contract with America had 10 points. The only defense point in the Contract was on national missile defense.

So when that tactic succeeded, when the Republicans regained control of the House and the Senate, they came in with a sense of commitment and a sense of mission to revive national missile defense, and they did it brilliantly. Because they now controlled Congress, they did it with tremendous effort, incessantly having hearing after hearing on national missile defense, attacking the threat estimates. The threat estimates were then that there wouldn't be a long-range ballistic threat to the United States for 10 or 15 years. They attacked those as being politically manipulated by the White House.

They formed panel after panel to come up with an alternative threat assessment, and finally got one in 1998 when the Rumsfeld commission, a blue-ribbon panel headed by now-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, came out with a threat assessment that finally the Republicans in Congress liked. It said that a ballistic missile attack could be imminent, that a country could develop a long-range missile and deploy with little or no warning.

So it raised the specter of fear, of uncertainty, of unknown, of threats coming from anywhere at anytime; if that was your threat, well, who wouldn't want a national missile defense to protect us from that? So by 1998, we had another leap forward in the drive for missile defense. The Congress had been jumping the appropriations year after year. By the time President Clinton left office, we were spending about $5 billion on missile defense. When President Bush came in, he jumped that to $8 billion, making it the largest single weapons program in the defense budget. ...

So the Republicans win in a landslide, stunning President Clinton and his administration. But there wasn't a threat at the time? I mean, there seemed to be a political need for a threat?

The national intelligence estimates didn't support the drive for a national missile defense program. The threat that actually existed from long-range ballistic missiles were those in Russia, which had over 1,000, and about 20 in China. And that was it. There was no other country that could hit the United States with a ballistic missile. So there wasn't the threat that would justify increasing the budget for missile defense.

I believe I've seen you quoted as saying that there then ensued a conscious political strategy to create, or to build up the threat?

Right. So the Republicans in control of congressional committees made it a priority to change the threat assessments. They attacked the analysts personally who were making those threat assessments. They attacked the White House for politically influencing the threat assessments. They demanded an independent panel be brought in to evaluate the threat assessment, the most recent one which had been done in 1995.

So a panel of Republicans and Democrats was assembled, headed by Robert Gates, the former director of Central Intelligence in the Bush administration. After a long study, they concluded that in fact the threat assessments were accurate, and that, if anything, there was more evidence supporting them than had been publicly revealed. And there was no political manipulation at all.

Well, that wasn't the answer that the Republicans in Congress wanted. So they buried the findings of that report until after the 1996 presidential elections. Then, in December 1996 -- and only then -- did they let Mr. Gates testify and other members of the panel.

When the Gates report didn't deliver the goods for them, they immediately formed a new panel and they tried again. This time they had it headed up by now-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. That panel came back in mid-1998 with the kind of threat assessment that they were looking for -- one that warned of an imminent danger, a danger of attack with little or no warning.

That was released in the summer of 1998. That August, as if to verify the commission's findings, the North Koreans launched an intermediate- or a medium-range ballistic missile, called the Taepo Dong. It went about 1,300 kilometers; not very far for a missile. [It] couldn't hit the United States, but its impact was global. Immediately it was seized upon as justification for the dire warnings of the Rumsfeld panel and proof that dictators and small undeterrable countries could pose a threat to the United States with ICBMs with nuclear warheads.

It's been argued to me by some who in fact sat on the Gates panel that that North Korean launch was proof of what the Gates commission said -- the United States would see a test, [and] that the notion that a country could develop a missile capable of reaching the United States without our knowing about it, is not possible.

Right. In fact, most intelligence analysts argued that we will have ample warning of any threat; that, in order for another country to develop an inter-continental range ballistic missile -- something that can go 5,000, 6,000, 10,000 miles -- they have to test these systems. They have to build it up by stages, and we will see those tests. It's very difficult to hide a test. It's very difficult to hide the construction of such a missile.

Talk to me a bit about the role of Bill Clinton and his administration in the resurrection of missile defense.

Well, Bill Clinton as president, and many of the people that he brought into the administration believed that there was a need for a missile defense system against short-range threats. But they had little faith in the need for, or the technical ability to develop, a long-range ballistic missile system.

Still, there was agreement to fund research in the area -- "Let's find out, let's explore it at a reasonable level." But he was pressured to go further, particularly after the 1994 elections brought the Republicans back into control of Congress. The Republicans always attacked the Democrats as being weak on defense. [It's a] standard technique in every election, just as the Democrats attack the Republicans for being weak on Social Security. The Clinton response was to triangulate the issue, to sort of embrace missile defense, to say, "We can bring you a missile defense that'll be better and more affordable than some of the Republican schemes," and to neutralize this as an election issue.

And it did so, very effectively. It was not an issue in the 1996 campaign, even though then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and then-Majority Leader Bob Dole tried to make it an issue. They thought missile defense would be a wedge issue in the 1996 election, but it proved not to have any traction with the public. They dropped it quickly into the election. But by then, Bill Clinton had also come up with his own plan, a Democratic plan for missile defense where he promised what he then called the "3 plus 3" program. We would research this for three years at a very high level of funding, and if it proved feasible, we would then deploy such a system within three more years.

That launched the president on an ultimately failed mission to try and develop a reasonable missile defense system that could conform with the existing treaty arrangements and provide protection for the American people against even a remote rogue state threat.

So Clinton, for largely political reasons, decides to move forward with research, at least. But one of the parameters was that it would not violate the ABM Treaty.


So that was something that was very much on their minds during that time?

Absolutely. And, by the way, one of the ironies of the current situation is, despite all of President Bush's criticism of the Clinton defense plans, what we're ending up with is a Clinton reduction plan for nuclear weapons and basically the Clinton plan for missile defense, a few interceptors in Alaska. But we'll get back to that. ...

President Clinton, relying on the advice of the Joint Chiefs and Department of Defense, wanted to develop an effective missile defense system that could co-exist with the existing treaty arrangements, and thought that this was possible and would adequately deal with the threat. So he developed a plan to deploy a hundred interceptors in Alaska where they'd be perfectly positioned to defeat, for example, a North Korean threat.

There are lots of technological problems with that, the same kind of problems that face any ground-based ballistic missile defense system. But against an unsophisticated missile launched with very few decoys from North Korea, this system probably would have a reasonable chance of hitting that missile. ...

But the point is that they were struggling to create a system without rupturing the ABM Treaty and rupturing relations with Russia.

Clinton wanted to deploy missile defense consistent with the ABM Treaty, and his plan could have worked. There might have been some amendments necessary or changes to the treaty, but the Russians by that point were perfectly willing to make any adjustments that we needed. If there was a Democrat as president now, we'd probably see such a system underway with Russian agreement.

But we have a different situation.

We have a different situation. President Bush doesn't believe in many of the treaties that his predecessors negotiated, and he is pulling the United States out of President Nixon's ABM Treaty. He's pulling us out of his father's START II Treaty on nuclear reductions. He's avoiding these kind of treaty arrangements in order to preserve what he thinks of as American freedom of action, American flexibility.

There's a myth around that now that the U.S. is out of the ABM Treaty, [that] somehow we'll be able to unleash these wonderful new technologies, that we won't be restrained anymore in our testing. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's not the ABM Treaty that's been stopping us from developing ballistic missile defense; it's the lack of technology. It's the fact that these systems don't yet exist, that this is extremely difficult to do. We could test almost everything we wanted to test within the ABM Treaty or with slight modifications. The treaty was never an impediment to effective missile defense. It was the lack of technology.

So how does this become, as you call it, a myth? I mean, why is it that so many of us -- and I think, frankly, including so many members of Congress in this town -- believe that the ABM Treaty was the impediment?

How does it become a myth? That's a good question. Well, one way is the constant repetition of the claim. I mean, over and over again you have reasonable, respected officials saying that the ABM Treaty is stopping us from developing ballistic missile defense; saying that North Korea, Iran, Iraq and other countries are a threat to the United States; saying that missile defense is possible if only we have the political will to deploy it.

That has an effect. When so many people are telling you these things, however untrue they may be, eventually people come to believe it, or at least suspend their doubts and become neutral on the issue. ... That leaves the ground open for the advocates or the proponents, and the proponents of missile defense have always had more fire in the belly than the opponents. They've been willing to go the extra mile. They've been championing this cause incessantly, skillfully, with lots of money behind them. They've just overwhelmed the skeptics. They've overwhelmed the opponents.

The only thing they haven't overwhelmed is the lack of technology ... which is why we don't have a missile defense system now, and won't have an effective system 10 years from now. ...

You can say, "Ballistic missile defense will defend America," in ten seconds or less. It takes you a little longer to explain that ballistic missile defense can't defeat countermeasures, that a boost-phase defense is operationally ineffective, that it's too far away from the missiles you're worried about, that it requires 24-hour, seven-day a week maintenance, which is practically impossible. It takes too long to say that. You've already clicked the channel. You're already someplace else, and that's why the arguments for missile defense have proved so persuasive. Who doesn't want to defend America? Who doesn't want effective missile defense?

I'd love to have a missile defense system that really protected America. I'd love to have a cure for cancer. I'd love to have a really good light beer. But some things are just beyond our technological capability. ...

So after the failed test in July 2000, Clinton announces he's not going to move forward. He's going to defer the decision to his successor. At that time, a group of foreign policy advisors has gathered around candidate Bush. How would you characterize them in terms of their long-standing beliefs in arms-control treaties, generally, the ABM Treaty, and national missile defense?

... Many of President Bush's advisors have a religious belief in missile defense, and feel that it plays a critical role in the strategic vision they have for the United States. They feel that they are in a historic moment, that they now have an opportunity. For some of them, it's an opportunity that they'd lost in the previous Bush administration. So they now have a second chance at this, a chance to fundamentally reorient American defense and foreign policy away from the policies of the past 40 years, toward policies that they think will ensure the 21st century as truly an American century.

To do this, they want to jettison the treaties that bind America ... and that don't recognize the unique role of the United States in preserving international peace and security. ... Is this American exceptionalism? Absolutely it is. But why shouldn't it be? We are an exceptional nation. We require exceptional tools to do this truly historic mission. They feel a sense of their own destiny, and they're acting as quickly as they can to implement these policies, before the cycle of the presidential elections starts to sap energy from their agenda and distract their president to more domestic policy concerns.

And a long-standing opposition to, specifically, the ABM Treaty?

In many ways, missile defense was more about killing the ABM Treaty than it was about deploying an effective missile defense system. They wanted to get rid of this treaty. They hated this treaty. This was not a new debate. This was not a post-Cold War debate. They hated it when Henry Kissinger negotiated it in 1970-1972. They hated it when Richard Nixon signed it. They were against treaties.

We're now in our third generation of debate about treaties. There has always been a divide in this country between people who thought that the only protection was reliance on U.S. military might, and those who tried to institutionalize American goals and values in treaties and international arrangements.

For 40 or 50 years the internationalists, the multilateralists, Republican and Democrat, have prevailed. We have constructed an interlocking network of treaties and agreements that have reduced and prevented the threat, if not altogether eliminated it. It's a regime that works. We are far safer today than we would have been without these treaties.

But that is not what President Bush's advisors see, at least many of them. They see these treaties as impediments, as restrictions that have to be pushed aside. They use the slogan of "Cold War relics" to disparage these treaties.

So the ABM Treaty is a Cold War relic; nuclear weapons are not, you know? We want to maintain our nuclear posture. We agree with the Russians to maintain 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons indefinitely. What on earth are you going to do with 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons? What military mission do you need 2,000 weapons for? Ten, perhaps. Hundreds, maybe, Thousands? They don't say. They just feel they need them.

So it wasn't a surprise to you last December when it was announced that the United States would be pulling out of the ABM Treaty in six months?

Well, as a matter of fact, I was a little surprised. ... Despite the hard lobbying by Secretary Rumsfeld and the hard right within the administration, I thought that common sense would prevail, that the president would realize that he was better off with an ABM Treaty than without it, and that he could get whatever modifications he needed to test whatever was necessary.

I think there was a genuine debate. I think it was a close call. In the end, the president was persuaded that not only should he do it, but he could do it without igniting a storm of international protest. That was made possible by the particular circumstances the president found himself in -- the Sept. 11 attacks, the international wave of sympathy and support for the United States, and the president's determination to do whatever it took to win the war on terrorism. Within that context, he was able to withdraw from the ABM Treaty with very little international criticism even from the Russians, because the whole world was rallying around the United States. Nobody was about to undermine us by criticism of a treaty withdrawal.

The events of Sept. 11 had muted any congressional criticism, at least any public congressional concerns or criticisms, as well.

On Sept. 10, the Democrats were going to the floor of the Senate with amendments to cut the president's missile defense request and restrictions on the testing of missile defense. But they dropped all that in the spirit of national unity after the tragic events of Sept. 11. They weren't about to publicly debate the president on defense. If anything, they were solidly behind him in approving emergency defense expenditures. They wanted to put the missile defense debate off until the war on terrorism was won.

The president had a different plan. He and his advisors skillfully used the moment to advance a pre-existing agenda. They used the sympathy and support and the domestic unity to take some very unpopular decisions and, in that way, to minimize any objections to those decisions.

In the recently leaked nuclear posture review, there is a classified paragraph that is the sort of current rationale, if you will, for national missile defense. It goes by the name "power projection" -- or that we don't want to be subject to blackmail. Can you talk to me a bit about that as the current -- at least private -- rationale?

Publicly, most people who favor missile defense talk about us protecting America. But there's a strong sense that missile defense is necessary for force projection, for the projection of U.S. military power abroad. The argument goes like this: If a future crisis erupts involving U.S. forces in, say, the Middle East or Taiwan, we want to be able to go into those situations with all our military might. If our opponent has nuclear-armed missiles that might be able to reach out of the region and attack the American homeland, and we don't have a defense against those missiles, then we might be deterred from taking strong military action.

For the first time, we might be in a situation where the other country could reach out and destroy us. Heretofore, we might not bring our military forces to bear. We might withdraw from the crisis, and we might begin a process of slow American withdrawal from the world.

So in this view, missile defense is not isolationist at all. It's very much about keeping America engaged and keeping American military forces engaged. So, for example, in a possible conflict with China -- and much of missile defense is geared towards exactly this scenario -- in a possible future conflict with China in 2020 or 2030, you better have a missile defense system that can neutralize any Chinese missiles, or else the U.S. might back down in a conflict over Taiwan, over oil rights in the South Pacific, over Japan -- and, in so doing, end this long-sustained period of American dominance.

So missile defense is essential for that military mission, not just for an abstract defense of the United States.

Do you think that is what is driving this right now?

I think that's key for many of the strategists. I think Paul Wolfowitz has written about this, for example, and other people in the administration have talked explicitly about the necessity of missile defense for force projection. That's why they see this as an essential component of American military dominance. ...

Right now, I think missile defense is enjoying a great deal of support, because after Sept. 11, any system, any program that has to do with reducing American vulnerability is going to get a great deal of popular and political support. No politician wants to be seen as being against a program that promises to protect the American homeland, whether it's missile defense or stockpiling smallpox vaccines.

The second reason it's enjoying support, I think, is because of this new, more robust assertiveness of American military posture. [There is] this feeling that there really are crazy people out there who want to kill us, and that they might do it in mass-destruction ways, whether it involves a nuclear, chemical, biological device, or an airplane, or destroying a nuclear power plant; we've got to have any forces at our disposal to defeat those evildoers, as the president says. Missile defense is just one of the many weapons we need, and it's enjoying this now sort of bubble of support for military expenditures over all.

Talk to me about the ballistic missile threat. How many countries have ballistic missiles?

Again, that is one of the great myths. One of the misconceptions that policymakers and the American public have is that there is a growing threat of ballistic missiles. In fact, there isn't. There are far fewer ballistic missiles in the world now than there were 15 years ago or 25 years ago. There are fewer medium-range ballistic missiles. There are fewer intermediate-range ballistic missiles. There are even fewer short-range ballistic missiles. The global arsenals that were constructed during the Cold War are now decreasing.

There are some countries who are joining the missile club, who are starting to construct new types of missiles. But even there, there are fewer nations with missile programs now than there were 15 years ago. When you look at it overall, what you realize is that there is a danger of missile proliferation, but it's a regional danger. It's confined to a few areas of the world -- the Middle East, South Asia, North Korea. It's confined.

It's changing relatively slowly, because the countries that are trying to develop missiles now are much poorer and less technologically advanced than the countries that were trying to develop them even 15 years ago. People forget that Brazil had a missile program. Argentina had a program. South Africa had a program. Libya had a program. All those are gone. What we're basically talking about is Pakistan, India, Israel, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. That's it. Some of those countries are potential adversaries; some are allies.

But beyond that, there really is nobody else who's doing this. Missile technology is not spreading inexorably around the world. The export control regimes work. It's hard to get missile technology. It's hard to build a missile. This is a very demanding technology. The same reason that there's only a few countries that can build global jets like the 747 that can transit the oceans is the same reason why there's only a few countries that can build ICBMs.

It's easy to build a short-range missile. That technology's been around since Nazi Germany did it against London. Most countries that have missiles still have that World War II type of V-2 technology. Most of them have Scuds -- Soviet copies of the V-2.

But to get an ICBM, to get something with stages, with sophisticated alloys and composite metals, with extremely powerful, yet lightweight, engines, with a re-entry vehicle -- this requires an advanced industrial capability and billions of dollars of investment. That's why so few nations actually have ICBMs.

You've written that the United States is mostly protected by the oceans.

The U.S. is fortunately surrounded by oceans. For another country to hit us with a ballistic missile, they have to build one that can span those oceans. That means they have to have one that goes over 5,000 miles. That's very hard to do. Most countries that have missiles only have missiles that can go less than 600 miles.

There are, for example, approximately 35 countries in the world with missiles. Twenty-four of them only have these short-range missiles, missiles that go under 600 [miles]. In fact, 21 of them only have missiles that can go under 300 miles -- just these Scud-type missiles. So even though you think there's a large number of countries with missiles, most of them can't reach us at all.

Right now, the only countries that could hit the United States with a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile are Russia, which has thousands of warheads on such missiles, and China, which has 20. That's it. There's nobody else.

Worst-case scenario, sometime in the next 10 years North Korea develops a medium-range missile that it has, puts a third stage on, and lofts a warhead to the United States. That's the worst case. That's what the Central Intelligence Agency projects as the worst case. I don't think that's even very likely, but that's pretty much it. If you can strike a deal with North Korea, and they're willing to talk -- and I think they're willing to deal -- you can eliminate their missile program in exchange for food aid and diplomatic recognition.

If you do that, you've largely solved your missile proliferation problem; not completely, but largely. Why? Because Pakistan's program and Iran's program depend on North Korean exports. You dry up that well, you cripple those other two programs. Then all you have left are concerns about whether India's program is going to export missile technology or not (and so far, they haven't); whether Iraq could ever reconstitute its missile program (but without external aid, they don't have much chance of that); and whether Israel, for some reason, would export their technology (but they probably won't).

And that's it. That's your missile threat. It seems much easier to resolve it by these targeted diplomatic and export control methods than by trying to build some impenetrable shield that can protect every square inch of America from an attack from anywhere at anytime.

So, as you're talking, it sounds like that 1995 national intelligence estimate has held up pretty well.

If you look back, the estimate that was performed in 1995 is closer to the actual development of missile technology than the Rumsfeld report was. I think the 1995 assessment holds up pretty well in hindsight.

Part of what we've been discussing is what has been referred to as the "politicization" of the threat. Why should we care about that?

Richard Perle once said that democracies have to be frightened into spending what is necessary for missile defense. I honestly believe there is a conscious effort to exaggerate the threat that we face, in order to justify particular weapon systems. That is, people believe these weapon systems are necessary; but in order to gin up popular support for them, they exaggerate the threat that we face. This has had some very unfortunate consequences.

Let me tell you something: I think the proponents of missile defense have a lot to answer for in terms of why we were so unprepared for Sept. 11. When you look at the threat assessments that have been done in recent years and the congressional action in recent years, almost all of it has been focused on the threat of ballistic missile attack.

Even when the heads of our intelligence agencies would come to Congress, as they did in February 2001, and say that their greatest concern was the threat of a terrorist attack against the United States or United States' interests that might result in mass casualties, or they were concerned deeply about unrest in the Middle East, the political agenda was skewed in another direction. So the Bush administration continued to focus on the ballistic missile threat. Most of our diplomatic assets were focused on winning allied and Russian agreement to the deployment of [a] ballistic missile defense system.

We didn't increase at all our resources devoted towards terrorism or towards the Middle East. And where are we now, you know? Where are we now? What are the threats that we actually face that are the most pressing national security threats that face the United States? Terrorism; unrest in the Middle East.

And still, we're spending $8 billion a year on missile defense. None of that money has been reallocated. I think the proponents of missile defense have done a real national disservice. They have been crying wolf about missiles for decades, and they have sucked billions in defense dollars out of other needed programs towards this illusion of missile defense.

More importantly, [they] have diverted us from the real threats that we face. If there hadn't been such political pressure and political demagoguery around missile defense, maybe we would have paid more attention to terrorism. Maybe we would have stayed engaged in the Middle East. Maybe we would have been able to prevent the disasters that confront us now.

How do you understand that missile defense has stayed so much at the center of the debate, at least in this town, about military foreign policy?

For some, missile defense is a touchstone of the Reagan revolution, that they believe that this issue is necessary to prove their bona fides as a true Reagan Republican. For some, it's tied in with the strategic vision of the United States that should be able to project military force anywhere, anytime, and it can have this capability. For some, it's part of a faith in American technology. If you can put a man to the moon, why can't we shoot down a ballistic missile? For some, it's more careers, profits. There's a lot of money in missile defense. Eight billion dollars a year, $100 billion spent just since the Star Wars speech. There's a lot of money to be made there.

But for all of them, I think, is this faith in finding a technological solution to American vulnerabilities; if we just have the right vision, if we just have the right political will, we can do what we want, when we want, anywhere we want, and protect the homeland from any attack or counterattack. I think that's an illusion, and a dangerous illusion. But it is the vision that fuels the missile defense fervor and keeps alive the myth of missile defense.

How do you answer the moral argument -- that people who oppose defenses, their answer then is massive retaliation, killing millions of innocents?

That's another myth. ... Let me put that another way. I'm a techno-skeptic. I don't believe we will ever have an effective missile defense system. We'll have some things that we deploy [that] they could call missile defense that work a little. They won't work a lot. But we won't have an effective system. Does that mean I'm against defenses? Of course not. I'm for effective defenses, things that really work. Does that mean, therefore, I want to rely on massive retaliation? If somebody attacks us, we will barrage them with nuclear weapons? No, of course not. I think that policy is as immoral as having no defenses at all.

But there are ways to reduce and prevent the threat in the first place. There are ways to shrink the numbers of these weapons in the world. I think we can greatly reduce the numbers of missiles, the numbers of nuclear weapons in the world. Why? Because we've already done it. We are doing this. There are fewer nuclear weapons in the world now than there were 15 years ago. There are fewer missiles in the world now than there were a fewer years ago. The U.S. used to have the world's biggest stockpiles of biological weapons and chemical weapons. These are now categorized as evil weapons that no one should have, and around the world, we're destroying these weapons.

The real truth is that we're winning the war against weapons of mass destruction. We are slowly but steadily reducing the number and preventing the countries who are acquiring them from doing so. You know there is a path forward, a true defensive path that doesn't rely on smoke and mirrors and promises and big fat contracts. You can get rid of missiles. You can get rid of nuclear weapons. It's possible, if we just have the political will to do it. ...

Missile defense has been described to me as a virtual system against a virtual threat.

... I think of missile defense as an illusion chasing an exaggerated threat. There are threats out there, but they're not as overwhelming or unstoppable as some would have us believe, and there is not a technological solution to these threats. We cannot build an impenetrable dome -- not just around the United States. We can't build one around our troops, around our ports.

The advantage is with the offense, and, frankly, it always has been. You build a fort, some guys come up with a catapult. No, offense wins this contest. At best, you can offset their advantage for a few years.

Missile defense is the longest running fraud in defense debate, and I'm afraid it's going to be with us for years and billions of dollars more to come. ...

You know what explains why we didn't have a major international crisis over the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty? One explanation is that the U.S. is a dominant military power in the world, and people are loath to get in our way. Even so, there might have been criticism of the president's remarks, except for the fact that it happened so soon after Sept. 11, and there was tremendous international sympathy and support for us. Our allies didn't want to criticize us during that time. Even so, there might have been criticism, except that the Russians went along with it, too. President Putin has fundamentally reoriented his priorities, and if the Russians are in agreement with the missile defense system, who can really argue with it?

But, finally -- and I think this is important -- it's been the realization among the Russians, among the Chinese, among many others, that we might not have the ABM Treaty, but we're not going to have missile defense either; there is no magic system. The president cannot soon deploy a system that has a significant military capability. That is, that what the president is doing, despite the rhetoric, is not going to fundamentally change the strategic stability, regional stability, balance of military forces. When it comes to missile defense, there's no "there" there, and it's going to take at least 10, maybe 20 years, before we know if anything will work.

That reduces international anxiety. That gives the countries much more time to find ways to deal with this issue, to see if they want to have missile defenses or they want to build up their own forces to counter it. But it reduces anxiety, reduces the threat.

When you look forward for the next 10 years, that's the reality we face -- the slow deployment of very limited capability. The hype is not met by the facts on the ground. When it comes to missile defense, there's much less there than meets the eye.

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