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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Missile Defense in Today's World

Ever since the attacks of Sept. 11, some commentators have suggested that the United States has seen its perceived sense of invincibility shattered. America's unilateral dominance of international affairs during the post-Cold War era invested us with a faith in our own national security. To the extent that American's possessed such a faith, we were mistaken.

The disturbing truth is that the United States is very exposed to terrorist attacks. While the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the threat of world destruction through nuclear war, it marked the emergence of another threat, that of weapons proliferation. The internal disarray that still pervades much the former Soviet bloc allows terrorist groups access to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Increased intelligence vigilance, as well as diplomatic efforts aimed at curbing anti-American sentiments will help the United States defend itself against further attacks. Recently, the war in Iraq showed the world the United States is prepared to lead a coalition of willing nations to contain rogue states that defy international efforts at arms control. The next step is to continue deploy a missile defense system. President George Bush has announced that the United States will being deployment of several systems in the next two years, and it is the responsibility of Congress and by extension the American people to insure that these programs receive the support, both political and financial, that their merits warrant.

The partisan nature of the debate has sufficiently muddied the waters to necessitate a brief explanation of such a system. The most promising proposal would allow warships equipped with the Aegis tracking system to fire missiles at local missiles in their boost phase. Another system that would operate on a broader scale is a system of land based missiles which would intercept incoming inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICMBs) while in the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Allusions to "Star Wars," "Brilliant Pebbles" or any other system from previous decades, while politically expedient, serve only to distract from the real issue at hand.

In judging the merits of constructing such platforms, we ought consider three points: first, the threats such a system counters, second, technological viability and third, international reaction. Opponents of missile defense claim that by developing a defense against ballistic missiles, we are ignoring the fact that terrorists and rogue states may easily sneak weapons of mass destruction into the United States in a truck or container ship. While that threat is real as well, and ought to be addressed, the United States is playing a zero-sum game. We must be vigilant in protecting ourselves from every possible method of attack, and just because ballistic missiles are not the only method to deliver these weapons does not mean we can be any less committed to the possibility. Terrorists need not fear nuclear retaliation since they have no country to retaliate against. Furthermore, there exists the possibility of an accidental launch. In 1997, a weather satellite caused Russian missile crews to prepare to launch. About five minutes were left until ignition when the reality set in that Russia was not under attack. The decay of the Russian early warning system will only exacerbate this problem.

Another common complaint has been that missile defense does not work. These criticisms are partially accurate, but carry little weight in terms of arguing for abandoning the project. The reason it does not work all the time currently is because the technology has yet to be applied to this particular set of parameters. A reliable missile defense system will be developed the same way we put men on the moon, through numerous tests, many of which will fail. The good news is, the Department of Defense is making significant progress, and the past few years have seen successful tests at increasing levels of realism.

Finally, some say that constructing a multi-tiered missile defense system will do more to destabilize international security than having a missile shield will be able to justify. Yet the threat of countries such as China being encouraged to produce more ICBMs in an attempt to have the capacity to overwhelm a missile defense is unrealistic. Even in a world without such a system, China has already decided to spy on the United States to steal missile technology. President Bush's decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 is well-reasoned. It is a relic of the Cold War, and its text allows either side to withdraw if there occurs a significant change in the nature of either state's security situation. The changing nature of threats in the 21st century demand that security precautions of another age give way to a realistic assessment of the future. Moreover, withdrawal from the treaty has not adversely impacted the country's relationship with Russia to any great extent. Developing missile defense will not invite American isolationism, since the economy and military are too entrenched around the globe for the United States ever to retreat back to its isolationist posture. Developing an ability to act without regard for nuclear blackmail will actually allow for a greater latitude of international involvement.

Missile defense represents the best hope the United States has of defending itself against the growing threat of ballistic missiles. The sooner the public realizes that a missile shield will afford greater security, the sooner the country can embark on creating a role for itself in the coming century.