APS News

Panelists Debate Pros and Cons of Proposed NMD Systems

A distinguished panel of experts in national defense policy and technology squared off to discuss their views on the proposed national missile defense (NMD) system during a special session at the APS April Meeting in Washington, DC. While the panelists offered differing opinions as to the feasibility and wisdom of deploying such a system, all agreed that they have the same goal: developing the best national defense for the country.

National defense policy has been dominated for the last 30 years by the ABM Treaty signed in 1972. However, Henry Cooper, former chief negotiator at the Defense and Space talks in Geneva and the third director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization under President Bush the elder, believes that the ABM treaty is no longer adequate to address emerging threats in the post-Cold War era, and that its constraints on developing new technology has led to the "dumbing down" of national defense programs. "We have invested most of our resources over the last eight years in the most complex, expensive, and least effective options," he said, expressing his hope that the Bush Administration will seek to reverse that trend by abandoning the treaty in favor of a new strategic approach to national security and defense.

The current rationale for developing a national missile defense system, according to Richard Garwin of the Council on Foreign Relations, is the emergence of such rogue states as North Korea, Iran and Iraq, all of which pose potential ICBM threats, armed with biological warfare agents such as anthrax, or nuclear warheads. "The NMD systems as proposed would be ineffective against the threat of feasible countermeasures," argued Garwin, who believes that boost-phase interceptors are the nation's best short-term solutions against these rogue-state ICBM threats to national security, because they strike before the ICBM reaches a speed that would carry it to its target, and because the rocket is more visible and more fragile than the warhead.

Foremost among Garwin's recommendations is a negotiation with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to permit deployment of boost-phase interceptors near North Korea and Iraq, which is not allowed under the 1972 ABM Treaty. He would also request an interpretation that would permit deployment of about 20 mid-course interceptors at Grand Forks, ND, which is an ABM site, but which is not permitted to defend "the national territory". While these deployments would not address biological weapons or short-range missiles, the ABM Treaty does not impede development of technologies to counter these threats. Garwin and Cooper both called for continued development of the Brilliant Pebbles interceptors initiated under the first Bush Administration, believing that the technology would prove generally useful. Cooper favors deployment of these interceptors in orbit, while Garwin does not-arguing that they would be destroyed soon after they were orbited. Garwin also recommended development of pre-boost-phase intercept, and suggested the US cooperate with Russia to safeguard against accidental launches.

The possibility of complex countermeasures to an NMD system is a major source of concern for many opponents to the program, according to Lisbeth Gronlund, Senior Staff Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a Research Fellow in MIT's Security Studies Program, and co-recipient of this year's APS Burton Forum Award. The proposed NMD system under the Clinton Administration called for ground-based "hit-to-kill" interceptors to intercept launched missiles outside the atmosphere with satellite-based infrared sensors to aid in tracking and guidance. Unfortunately, such a system is vulnerable to such countermeasures as anti-stimulation decoy balloons and "cooled shrouds" for nuclear warheads, which could outwit the infrared sensors used in an NMD system to detect missiles. The system also does not address the possibility that a rogue state could divide a biological warfare agent into 100 or more small "bomblets" for more effective distribution, making it much more difficult to intercept all of them.

Gronlund believes the technology proposed under Clinton will still be the core of the Bush Administration's approach, since it is the furthest along in development, but will most likely be augmented by such technologies as boost-phase interceptors and space-based defense systems. While its proponents argue that the feared countermeasures are beyond the technical capabilities of emerging missile states, and that the NMD system will evolve further to take these into account, "No one has argued that the NMD system as currently planned would defeat these sorts of countermeasures," she said.

Baker Spring, F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation, summarized the primary criticisms frequently leveled at the proposed NMD system. First, many critics believe that the threat of ballistic missiles is insufficient to justify the expense of deploying a global defense system, and maintain that while there is proliferation of short-range missiles as evidenced in the Gulf War, long-range missile defense is not a high national security priority. Second, existing counter measures are likely to defeat a mounted defense. Finally, many critics believe that a national missile defense would pose an "intolerable risk" to the stability of US national security, as well as endangering the existing ABM treating and reigniting a nuclear arms race.

While acknowledging that many of these criticisms have merit, Spring believes they can be adequately resolved, insisting, "If we don't plan ahead, our response time will be insufficient for missile defense." While 10 years ago only the US, Russia, China and Japan had long-range missile capabilities, that scenario is changing rapidly, and hence "A stand-alone NMD system would not be a prudent way to proceed," said Spring. "We want to see an NMD system that is global in scale."

Like Cooper and Garwin, Spring also believes the ABM treaty is outdated and ineffective. "The treaty is still too self-limiting and won't allow us to address threats likely to occur," he said. The ABM treaty contains serious limitations on testing and development including stringent limits to sea- and space-based systems, which he believes could be effective counters to the threat of counter-measures.