Congress and the Administration are in a rush to deploy a national missile defense system. Brushing aside the stubborn facts of failed tests and declining global missile arsenals, each is outbidding the other with budgets and timetables. Both the Senate and the House will vote this month on bills to mandate deployment.

We have seen this hysteria before. In the late 1960’s the dream of a technological shield, the promises of senior officials, the lure of billions in defense contracts, and the political fear of being labeled "weak on defense" propelled a 50-50 Senate vote (Vice-President Spiro Agnew broke the tie) to deploy the Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile System at Grand Forks, North Dakota. The system went operational in October 1975, and was shut down four months later as militarily ineffective.

Even with 100 high-speed interceptors tipped with nuclear warheads that had been flight tested 111 times and that could fairly reliably intercept an incoming warhead, the Congress decided and President Gerald Ford and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld agreed, that it was simply too easy to defeat the system to justify the operational expense. Total cost: $23 billion (in current dollars).

Will history repeat? Very possibly. The $4.2 billion budget this year for missile defense makes it the largest single weapons program in the defense budget. With a seven-year plan to spend $30 billion on these systems, it is a growth field for the defense industry. If a single site is constructed, it would cost $28 billion, according to the General Accounting Office. That would make it the 10th-most-expensive weapon system in the budget. If two are built, as many urge, the $56 billion price tag jumps the system to the fourth-most-expensive program, ahead of the $54 billion we are spending to build 57 DDG-51 Navy AEGIS destroyers.

But this would still be only the first stage of what most conservative proponents really want. If we go all out, if we build the space-based system that restores the true "star wars" vision of orbiting laser battle stations, coupled with land- and sea-based interceptors, then the price tag jumps to $184 billion, according to the Senate Budget Committee. (Putting aside the technical impossibility of building such systems anytime in the next two decades.) That would make missile defense the second most expensive weapons program, dwarfing the next two contenders combined: the 341 new F-22 fighter planes the Air Force will build for $67 billion and the 30 new attack submarines the Navy wants for $64 billion.

The difference between these other programs and missile defense is that after the expenditure of funds, at least you acquire real military capabilities. The subs, planes and ships can carry out real missions, provide real defense. With missile defense, all you have is the illusion of protection.

Despite the best efforts of thousands of scientists and the expenditure of $120 billion since 1962, we still do not have a system that can reliably intercept even the short-range Scuds we encountered in the Gulf War. Eventually, basic interceptor technology will be perfected, but then there is a wide array of inexpensive counter-measures available to any foe to deceive the defense, and, of course, many other cheap and more reliable delivery methods available for depositing a weapon of mass destruction on an American city.

A few in Congress are resisting the deluge. Consider the arguments of Representative Tom Allan of Maine against the National Missile Defense plan:

"It is our duty to ask fundamental questions before we commit the public's resources to deploy NMD. How much will it cost to test, build and operate, over a period of years? Does the threat compel the expense, taking into account other threats and other responses? Will an NMD improve our security, or will it lead to dangerous new arms races? Will an NMD actually work?

"Some say the only thing standing between today and deployment is political will. But I conclude it's technology. It's physics. It's money. It's the real world. My source? None other than our top man in uniform, General Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: ‘The simple fact is that we do not yet have the technology to field a national missile defense. We have, in fact, put some $40 billion into the program over the last 10 years. But today we do not technologically have a bullet that can hit a bullet.’

"If we trust the Joint Chiefs on readiness, and we trust them on troop retention, shouldn't we also trust them on National Missile Defense? Let's slow down, step back, and look at this issue more carefully and thoroughly. Let's look at what the Chiefs have to say. Let's ask the necessary questions of threat, cost, utility, capability, and effectiveness."

Members of the Senate and the House would be wise to ask the necessary questions before they vote on bills to mandate deployment later this month.


Joseph Cirincione is the Director of the Non-Proliferation Project. He served for nine years on the professional staff of the House Armed Services Committee and Government Operations Committee with oversight responsibilities for missile defense systems.

This article is slightly adapted from an opinion piece originally printed in The Boston Globe, March 8, 1999. It is reprinted here with the permission of the newspaper.