There is a wonderful scene in the popular movie, The Matrix, where the hero played by Keanu Reeves watches in wonder as a young boy bends a spoon with his mind. "The secret," the boy reveals, "is that there is no spoon."
No one could blame Bush administration officials for feeling a bit like Reeves as they struggled to sort out reality from illusions. Many came into office believing the claims of advocates that we already have an effective military defense against missiles—all that has been lacking has been the political will to deploy. But these officials had their own mind-bending experience as Pentagon leaders carefully explained that there is no missile defense.
That is, there is no weapon system that the United States can deploy any time in President Bush’s first term and maybe not even in a second term. On May 1, President Bush broadly outlined his proposals for U.S. offensive and defensive nuclear forces. He has sent a team of senior officials to consult with European and Asian allies. While the final decisions may not be announced until June, here are the hard facts that have shaped his choices.
The military has been working on several systems to defend against short-range missiles like the Scuds we faced in the Gulf War. But progress has been slow. Tests of an improved Patriot missile system look good, but that weapon won’t be ready to field until 2004, 13 years after the original Patriot ran into serious problems trying to intercept the primitive Scuds.
The only system that could have any chance of intercepting long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles is the plan developed during the Clinton administration to field 100 interceptors in Alaska with new radars and satellite sensors. If everything works perfectly from now on, part of the system could become operational by 2007.
But there are serious problems with that program and many experts doubt it will ever work. Its interceptors have failed the last two of the three tests conducted so far and the next test has been delayed almost a year until this June.
Some conservative think tanks in Washington have made a cottage industry out of promoting an upgrade to the Navy’s Aegis destroyers and cruisers as a cheap, quick and effective national missile defense. The military officials actually trying to build an effective missile defense realize how difficult this is. Former Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization Director, Air Force General Lester Lyles, told the Senate that the claims of the Heritage Foundation that sea-based missile defenses could be rapidly deployed just weren’t true. "It will not be the quick, cheap or easy solution that some outside advocates may have advertised," he said.
Just this March, General John Costello, director of the Army’s Space and Missile Command, warned that despite the problems, the land-based system is still the quickest system available. "It is certainly the only NMD program that has launched missiles, engaged targets and done at least the nuts and bolts work of getting something together," he said. "I'm hard pressed to see how a sea-based component can get there better, cheaper, faster. I just don't see it." As for dreams of space-based defenses, Costello cautions that the first test of any space weapon isn’t planned until 2012, and we can’t even consider the possibility of deploying anything until near 2020.
So what to do? President Bush announced on May 1 a new strategic vision for our nuclear forces. First, he announced his desire for deep reductions in the numbers of offensive warheads. When he finalizes his plans in June, he will likely reduce the number of warheads deployed on our missiles from 7200 to as few as 1500, as he has hinted in previous remarks. Going as low as 1000 would be even more significant as it would require major changes in strategic operational war plans. He will probably announce that he will make these reductions unilaterally, that is, without formal agreements with Russia.
In rethinking U.S. nuclear strategy, he may be tempted to discuss expanded missions for nuclear weapons to include responding to the use of chemical or biological weapons or for targeting deep underground facilities. This could be very controversial, but there are strong advocates in the administration for "fewer but newer" nuclear weapons to confront the new threats they see.
Rhetorically, language shifted away from talk of "national" defenses, with the President even suggesting that the U.S. could in the future cooperate with other nations on missile defense. The president alluded to a number of systems, including land and sea-based systems for shooting down missiles in mid to latter stages of flight. Bush also mentioned the possibility of developing boost-phase systems for ships and planes.
While few details were provided, ultimately the Bush II missile defense will look very similar to the plan former President Bush had in 1991: a "Global System Against Limited Strikes" or GPALS. Many current officials were involved in that plan and believe it would have worked if President Clinton had not pulled the plug. The 2001 version of the plan may include an "emergency deployment option" that might rush some Navy ships out to sea by 2004 with prototypes of the interceptor missiles.
Although the President criticized the ABM Treaty for "enshrining the past," he did not call for the U.S. to pull out of the treaty – yet. The treaty allows research to proceed and Administration officials now recognize that U.S. allies strongly favor maintaining the treaty. Breaking the treaty could trigger an international crisis that would dominate Bush’s first year in office.
Bush is unlikely to provoke such a crisis. Nor is there reason to. Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton spent $60 billion on research while staying within the treaty. Bush could minimize opposition to his plan by beginning slowly.
If the President handles it right—and if the European allies weigh in with cautious counsel—he could end up with a program that would greatly reduce the dangers from nuclear weapons, while researching sensible missile defense options. With many fewer nuclear weapons globally, defenses might someday provide a limited insurance policy against anyone foolish enough to attack the most powerful nation in the world.