by Joseph Cirincione
On March 21, 1996, then Senate majority leader Robert Dole and House speaker Newt Gingrich introduced the Defend America Act, mandating deployment by 2003 of a nationwide system of satellites, radars, and missile interceptors. Dole called it "one of the key defining pieces of legislation the Congress will consider this year," adding that "national missile defense must be America's top defense priority." Gingrich promised it would be "the most important national defense debate since Churchill argued for building radar." Conservative activists pressed Republican politicians for a resurrected "Star Wars" program. The Wall Street Journal lauded the bill in a series of editorials as did New York Times columnist William Safire. The entire conservative defense establishment was sure that this would be the wedge issue that would expose President Bill Clinton's weakness in "failing to defend America." Instead, the issue ricocheted back, exposing fault lines in the Republican party and damaging the credibility of its proponents.
The Birth of an Issue
Proponents worked hard to supply the will. In an August 1995 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Strom Thurmond, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Jack Kemp wrote that "the development of missile defenses today is technologically and economically feasible." The only obstacles, they said, were "outdated arms control treaties." In 1995, missile defense became a central theme of the Republican-controlled Congress's criticism of the Clinton defense plan. Late in the year, the president vetoed the Defense Authorization bill over a provision mandating deployment of a national missile defense system by the year 2003. Congressional leaders, surprised by the president's strong stand, could not muster enough votes to override the veto. In January 1996, they were forced to strip out the controversial provision in order to win passage of the authorization act.
The Defend America Act was designed to trigger another veto and provoke a confrontation during the presidential campaign. A key architect of the strategy was Gaffney, head of both the Center for Security Policy and the Coalition to Defend America. "By tirelessly pushing results of his polls and studies of 'focus groups,' " the Wall Street Journal reported in April 1996, he "has convinced Republican leaders that backing a national missile defense can be a winning issue for them this fall." A March 7, 1996, memo to House Appropriations Committee chairman Robert Livingston from committee staffer Bill Inglee details the plan:
The strategy worked. By May 1996, missile defense had become a theme for conservative columnists, talk-show hosts, and editors. The Wall Street Journal, for example, promoted the legislation in a special editorial section on June 20, which featured calls for deployment from three former secretaries of defense--Caspar Weinberger, James Schlesinger, and Donald Rumsfeld--along with nuclear scientist Edward Teller and former CIA director James Woolsey. The Republican platform and candidate Dole embraced the issue. In the run-up to the election, more hearings were held, speeches given, and columns published on missile defense than on any other defense issue.
In June 1996, Dole quit the Senate and took the Defend America Act on the road. He fired off major speeches in California, Pennsylvania, and Texas devoted to missile defense. Gingrich made it a major part of his foreign policy speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York the same month. Meanwhile, independent polls and focus groups showed little public interest. Even Gaffney's focus groups began to backfire. Soon Republican candidates began walking away, convinced that they should not raise the issue in their campaigns.
At the Republican convention in August, candidate Dole made only a perfunctory mention of missile defense, pledging, "On my first day in office, I will put America on a course that will end our vulnerability to missile attack and rebuild our armed forces." He and his running mate, Kemp, barely mentioned the topic after the convention, even in their debates with Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Congress pumped extra funds into the budget, but legislation mandating deployment of a system never made it out of the House. And the missile defense issue never made a difference in the campaigns.
Star Wars Flaws
The Defend America Act ignored five factors that history has shown to be crucial in determining the success of any major new defense program: the presence of a genuine threat, credible technology to answer the threat, military enthusiasm, adequate funding, and popular support. Not all are necessary. A program with a promising new technology can still survive the absence of a threat: The B-2 bomber is a case in point. Alternatively, the lack of both a threat and sufficient technology can be overcome if a military service pushes hard enough, as the Army did for their new Comanche helicopter. Sometimes, presidential will and popular support can sustain a program that lacks most of the other elements, as in the early years of Reagan's Star Wars program. Here, however, the attempted revival came up short on all accounts.
One problem was the absence of a credible threat to warrant a national missile defense program. The Cold War menace of thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads had been replaced by two types of dangers. The first was either an accidental or unauthorized launch of Russian missiles or a deliberate strike from China. The second was the possibility that some other state hostile to American interests would build or acquire nuclear weapons and missiles. Heritage Foundation foreign policy director Kim Holmes and analyst Baker Spring warned that "more than two dozen countries--including China, Russia, and a number of rogue states, such as North Korea, Iran and Libya--already possess, or are in the process of acquiring or developing, long- and intermediate range ballistic missiles. In short, the potential threat is real and is increasing rapidly."
Most of the congressional and conservative arguments for a crash program to field missile defenses stressed the rogue threat. "It won't be all that many years before a pirate in a place like Baghdad or Pyongyang gets hold of a nuclear bomb and the means with which to deliver it," warned then representative Bob Dornan (R-California) in floor debate. "When that capability exists, it will of course be too late to start slapping together a national missile defense." North Korea was singled out as the most serious threat, because it is the only rogue nation with a missile program that could threaten U.S. territory--within the next year or two, according to Livingston.
Government intelligence assessments, however, concluded that there are only two potential enemies in the world that currently can strike the continental United States with land-based ballistic missile warheads: Russia, which has 3,500, and China, which has seven. Officials believe the danger of an accidental or unauthorized launch--though worrisome--is low and that the certainty of a swift U.S. counterstrike is sufficient to deter any deliberate nuclear attack from either China or Russia. Moreover, the intelligence agencies all agree that it is unlikely that "any other country will acquire this capability during the next 15 years." Most missile-equipped countries, including Iran, Libya, and North Korea, have only Scud-like missiles with ranges of a few hundred kilometers+incapable of reaching the United States or Europe.
Huge leaps in technology are required to advance from the Scud technology, based on the German V-2s of World War II, to a modern intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The single stage of a Scud puts out a thrust of 30,000 pounds, propelling the rocket 300 to 600 kilometers at a speed of 1 to 2 km per second. America's three-stage Minuteman III, with 202,600 pounds of thrust, can cross nearly 10,000 kilometers at a speed of 7 km per second. Expensive items such as advanced alloys, computer guidance systems, and sophisticated reentry vehicles are all necessary for such performance. According to a forthcoming book by the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project at the Brookings Institution, the United States has spent $266 billion (in 1996 dollars) to procure 6,135 missiles, and approximately $86 billion on more than 15,200 warheads for those missiles.
It is no wonder, then, that in 1993 a CIA report conducted during Woolsey's tenure concluded that
In a 1996 national intelligence estimate, all of the intelligence agencies reconfirmed this report, adding that the North Korean missile program "will move slower than we projected earlier." The 1996 intelligence estimate concluded that
In other words, the likelihood that the Republicans' proposed missile defense program would be necessary was exceedingly low. As this estimate undermined their case, conservative advocates accused the Clinton administration of "politicizing" the intelligence assessment to hide the truth about the missile threat. Congress mandated a special panel to critique the assessment. It backfired.
In December 1996, the panel, headed by former Bush administration CIA director Robert Gates, testified that there was "no evidence of politicization" and that they were "completely satisfied that the analysts' views were based on the evidence before them and their substantive analysis." Moreover, the panel blasted as irresponsible the "unsubstantiated allegations challenging the integrity of intelligence community analysts by those who simply disagree with their conclusions, including by members of Congress." Finally, the panel agreed that the United States is unlikely to face an ICBM threat from the Third World before 2010 "even taking into account the acquisition of foreign hardware and technical assistance, and that case is even stronger than was presented in the estimate."
No Credible Technology
The Defend America Act was also based on the premise that, as the bill states, "the United States possesses the technological means to develop and deploy defensive systems that would be highly effective in countering limited ballistic missile threats to its territory." Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) said bluntly in May 1996, "Our nation is vulnerable because President Bill Clinton refuses to allow the defensive systems to be built that would protect America." Gingrich asserted that "most Americans don't realize today that while we have the science and we have the engineering, we have not turned that into capability." Members of Congress were repeating what conservative proponents had told them. It is an article of faith among such groups that Star Wars would have worked if not for the politicians who prevented its deployment.
Effective defense against long-range missiles remains elusive, however. In tests conducted by the Department of Defense since 1982, only two hits were achieved in 13 attempts against a variety of targets and a range of interceptor systems. At this point U.S. forces cannot reliably intercept even the short-range Scuds encountered in the Persian Gulf war. Patriot missiles hit few, if any, Scuds, according to independent assessments conducted by the Israeli Defense Force, congressional investigators, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists. The Patriot missile, equipped with a new "multi-mode" seeker, failed in two out of three intercept tests conducted after the war. The Army found it "operationally unacceptable." The new replacement interceptor missile, the ERINT, will not be fully tested and deployed until 1999.
Potentially more threatening than Scuds are medium-range missiles that travel up to 3,000 kilometers. No nation hostile to the United States currently has such missiles, but this is the threat represented by systems reportedly under development in North Korea. Both the administration and the Congress favor developing systems to intercept these missiles, with Congress trying to force a faster development and deployment schedule. So far, tests of the most promising candidates, the Army's Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and the Navy Upper Tier system, have been disappointing. While both systems are technically feasible, THAAD has failed in all three of its test intercept attempts, and the Navy has gone zero for two. These were tests against specially designed targets, with known trajectories and characteristics, well within the expected performance range of the systems. These test failures have implications for national missile defense, as both use the types of "kill vehicles" (the front-end seekers and guidance systems that would actually intercept the targets) that have been proposed for the national defense systems as well. As of this writing, the next THAAD test is set for February 1997. Still years away are tests that would put missile defenses up against realistic threats that employ warheads with decoys or jammers or that take minor twists and turns as they reenter the Earth's atmosphere to evade defenses.
Countermeasures are the Achilles' heel of all efforts to intercept ballistic missiles. They remain one of the major unsolved technical barriers to effective missile defense despite decades of effort. It is far easier and cheaper to deploy simple and effective countermeasures against defenses than it is for the defenses to respond.
This situation is one of the main reasons for Department of Defense pessimism about current technologies to defend against Chinese and Russian long-range missiles. If everything worked, a system of 100 ground-based interceptors with space-based sensor satellites might be able to intercept a few warheads. However, Deputy Secretary of Defense John White reported to Congress last June,
In short, the best we could hope for is a system of "less than 100 per cent capability against a handful of reentry vehicles that are essentially cooperating, that is, are absent countermeasures," according to House National Security Committee staffer Douglas Necessary. "The biggest disservice we could do," he says, "would be to lull the American people into a false sense of security by deploying a placebo."
Moreover, deploying the type of thin national defense now feasible, whether at one site or several--ground-based or sea-based--would likely trigger unintended consequences. A plausible Chinese response, for example, might be to protect the perceived deterrent value of its nuclear weapons by equipping them with countermeasures to overcome the defenses or by speeding up China's planned ICBM modernization program to increase the quantity and quality of its missiles. Chinese analysts are already debating such moves. It was precisely to avoid such situations that President Richard Nixon negotiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 1972.
The absence of a threat and the lack of adequate technology might have been overcome had the military strongly supported the program. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) firmly opposed a crash program for national missile defense. In January 1996, the JCS wrote that with "Russia and China as the only countries able to field a threat against the U.S. homeland, the funding level for [national missile defense] should be no more than $500 million per year and [theater missile defense] should be no more than $2.3 billion per year." Such funding levels would allow a "balanced and proportional" program that could meet war-fighting needs and still "save dollars that can be given back to the Services to be used for critical recapitalization programs." In other words, the JCS did not want to divert critical funds into a program that promised little real defense against a threat that might not develop for decades.
Ignoring this advice, in 1996 the Congress added $855 million to the president's $2.8 billion request for ballistic missile defense, boosting the amount earmarked for national missile defense from $508 million to $833 million. The president acceded to the funding increase in September as it was part of the overall spending bill for the Department of Defense and included a pay raise for the troops. In 1997, the president could try to rescind or reprogram these funds for other defense programs.
The administration, based on the Joint Chiefs' advice, had its own "3 plus 3" plan to develop a national missile defense system within three years and, if necessary, to then deploy the system within the next three years. If, as expected, the threat had not materialized, research would continue. Most of the funds in this almost $3 billion per year effort would be devoted to developing defenses against the near-term threat posed by Scud-type missiles and to the development of THAAD and other medium-range interceptors.
President Clinton summarized his approach and criticized the congressional plan at the Coast Guard Academy in May 1996:
Military leaders agree with the president. Each service is willing to develop a missile defense system with the essentially free money provided by the separate Ballistic Missile Defense Organization account but has spent little of its own budget on such efforts. The services' concerns are maintaining force structure, modernizing essential weaponry, and defending against the existing short-range missile threats to deployed troops. Moreover, they do not want the unnecessary deployment of a national defense system to derail existing nuclear arms reduction efforts. JCS chairman John Shalikashvili wrote then senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) in May 1996 that the Defend America Act might cause changes to or withdrawal from the ABM treaty, triggering Russian withdrawal from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) process. "I am concerned," he wrote, "that failure of either START initiative will result in Russian retention of hundreds or even thousands more nuclear weapons thereby increasing both the costs and risks we may face."
The budget-busting potential of the entire missile defense program ultimately led to its doom. Proponents had anticipated House passage of the Defend America Act in May 1996, until a required cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) landed like an incoming Scud. The CBO estimated that the bill's requirement for a "highly effective defense of all 50 states . . . augmented over time to provide a layered defense against larger and more sophisticated ballistic missile threats" would cost up to $60 billion for the deployment of ground-based interceptors, tracking stations, satellite sensors, and hundreds of yet-to-be-invented space-based interceptors and space lasers. A July 1996 CBO report showed that the total cost of the proposed systems could reach $116 billion over 20 years, including operation and support costs.
Freshmen Republican deficit hawks in the House revolted. They refused to support a major new government program, even for national defense. After a turbulent Republican caucus session, the leadership was forced to pull the legislation from floor consideration. Despite efforts to reintroduce the bill, they could never muster sufficient support. Many members felt betrayed; they had been led to believe that the program would be virtually cost-free.
The Heritage Foundation study had stated that its elaborate system would require only $7.3 billion over requested missile defense budgets through the year 2001--about what the Senate and House had planned to add to the missile defense accounts. Gaffney underbid that estimate, saying that for $2 to $3 billion, Aegis destroyers and cruisers could be upgraded with effective antimissile interceptors. When the sponsors of the Dole-Gingrich bill were asked at their March 21 press conference for cost estimates, they could not answer at first. Finally, they said "four to five billion [dollars] between now and the end of the decade." They should have known that the types of systems they were proposing had always been estimated to cost tens to hundreds of billions of dollars. For example, SDIO officials had testified in 1991 that a system similar to that proposed in the Defend America Act--the Global Protection against Accidental Launch System put forth by President George Bush--would cost $90 billion to develop, deploy, and support for more than 15 years. The simple anti-ballistic missile system the United States built and deployed near Grand Forks, North Dakota, in the early 1970s cost $22 billion in 1996 dollars. (It was shut down by the Ford administration after only a few months because it was militarily ineffective and considered not worth the cost of operating.) The Strategic Defense Initiative program itself, directed largely by the authors of the Heritage study, consumed nearly $44 billion between 1983 and 1993 without producing any deployable systems or technological breakthroughs. Overall, according to the Brookings study, the country has spent more than $100 billion in current dollars on missile defense efforts since the mid-1950s (plus $17 billion on the Patriot system, developed separately by the Army as an antiaircraft system).
The greatest weakness in the attempted Star Wars revival was that the public did not feel threatened. Unlike during the 1980s, when Reagan promised a technological shield that would protect America from Soviet missiles "just as a roof protects a family from rain," the public now had little fear of foreign threats. Just 3 per cent of the Americans polled in May 1996 thought it was likely that the United States would be attacked by nuclear missiles in the next five years.
Defense and foreign affairs overall were not much on voters' minds in the '96 campaign. Thus, there was no national anxiety that could be exploited to propel an expensive and controversial program over the objections of military and intelligence leaders and a budget-cutting Congress. Warnings of a "missile defense gap" and that "Mr. Clinton's opposition to a missile defense is one of the most negligent, short-sighted, irresponsible and potentially catastrophic policies in history," as Dole claimed in June, did not resonate with voters.
Editorial opinion was also overwhelmingly against the program, eclipsing scathing attacks on the president from conservative publications and commentators, including Safire and Irving Kristol. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe were influential voices, and papers from members' home towns also weighed in against missile defense. "Now, here's Dole & Co.," said the Chattanooga Times, "seeking another $20 billion for that gold-plated rat hole, lest we become vulnerable to North Korea or Libya, a truly screwball idea." In the battleground state of Florida, the Miami Herald editorialized, "One of the most wasteful items [of the defense budget] is the $4 billion earmarked to construct a missile defense system by 2003. This dubious 'Son of Star Wars' could wind up costing as much as $54 billion before it finally could be deployed." Even out in the Republican West, the Idaho Falls Post Register noted, "It doesn't make any sense to be cutting budgets for students, the elderly and low-income families so that the Pentagon can have billions more to develop a missile defense system that will be outdated by the time any nation poses a threat."
Nongovernment organizations formed their own "Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers" to conduct a public education campaign. They faxed, published, debated, and organized. They conducted their own focus groups and widely distributed the results: Even though most people thought America already had a missile defense system, when told that it did not, they were much more concerned about threats from terrorists than about nuclear missile attacks. The coalition's polls backed these findings. Fewer than three in 10 Americans supported the Defend America Act. Some of the Republican candidates brought to focus groups run by Gaffney were discouraged. "I'm reluctant to make it an issue because of the education effort required to make it stick with the electorate," one told the Washington Post.
The Clinton Plan
Democratic members of Congress and independent analysts had worked closely with the administration to help frame the debate and synthesize the various elements of the president's efforts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In the end, they produced a policy approach that enjoyed the support of nearly all congressional Democrats, including important players such as Congressmen Ron Dellums (California), John Spratt (South Carolina), and Chet Edwards (Texas), as well as Senators Nunn, Carl Levin (Michigan), and Byron Dorgan (North Dakota). The key was to see missile defense as much more than a hardware program. As then national security adviser Anthony Lake summarized, "Rather than simply focus on what one analyst called 'the last 15 minutes of the problem'--the time it takes for a distant warhead to reach America's shores--we have worked hard in the here and now to reduce the chance of attack."
The administration laid out three lines of defense against missile attacks. "Our first line of defense is to prevent the spread of weapons and missile technology through a range of arms control and nonproliferation treaties, export controls and sanctions," said then secretary of defense William Perry. These include the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, the Framework Agreement with North Korea freezing that nation's nuclear program, the new Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the Missile Technology Control Regime and other export controls. Included also is a program that now intercepts missiles on the ground: The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, named after its sponsors, Senators Nunn and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), has provided more than $1.5 billion to the states of the former Soviet Union to help destroy missiles, disassemble warheads, and improve the security of nuclear storage facilities. Adroit diplomacy and Nunn-Lugar funds convinced Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to give up thousands of nuclear warheads, missiles, and bombers that they had inherited from the Soviet Union and to join the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states. "History will record the prevention of four new nuclear weapons states from emerging out of the wreckage of the Soviet empire," Nunn has said, "as one of the greatest achievements of the decade, and as laying an important foundation for a post-Soviet world."
The second line of defense, according to Perry, "is to deter the use of these weapons by maintaining strong conventional and nuclear forces and the willingness to retaliate." The only remaining logical role for nuclear weapons is as a deterrent against the use of nuclear weapons by others. The overwhelming conventional armed forces of the United States can destroy any foe that uses or threatens to use weapons of mass destruction. Conventional forces can also be employed to seek out and destroy missiles before their launch.
Finally, Perry noted, if these two lines fail, "we must also have a third line of defense--a program to deploy systems to defeat the threat by shooting down missiles of mass destruction." This was the administration's "3 plus 3" program. Together, the three lines of defense provided a compelling plan, promoted by the administration and defended vigorously in committee hearings and floor debates by Democratic congressional leaders.
Faced with united Democrats, divided Republicans, military opposition, budget pressures, and a skeptical public, Senate and House supporters of "Defend America" conceded defeat. Last August, Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) complained, "I've never thought this was a big political winner. It's too complicated, the threat is not easy enough to perceive." On September 18, with only two weeks remaining in the session, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) threw in the towel.
The Future Missile Shield Debate
The Republican leadership was ill-served by its self-appointed advisers. Their extreme positions on missile threats and technology proved as wrong and misguided as their reactionary prescriptions for America's defense. This small group of hard-right advocates seems to have a hammerlock on key congressional staff and committee leaders, having urged them to oppose START II's reduction of nuclear arsenals, the Chemical Weapons Convention's ban on poison gas, and the CTBT's block on new nuclear weapons development. Trapped in Cold War thinking, Heritage analysts even urged senators to eliminate funding for the Nunn-Lugar program in order to fund more B-2 bombers. The Senate rejected that advice, voting 100 to 0 to increase funds for this vital program, but conservative lobbying against other efforts to reduce the proliferation threats continues, as does lobbying for increases in defense spending.
There may well be efforts by pragmatic moderates in both parties to pull the congressional leadership back from its opposition to these treaties and programs, which are popular with the public and supported by military leaders. If so, these moderates should carefully review the sweeping defeat of the 1996 Defend America campaign. The Defense Department's three lines of defense proved to be much more practical than a Star Wars revival, and the intelligence agencies were ultimately much more reliable than conservative advocates. Still, funding needs to be reconciled with rhetorical priorities.
With congressional and executive-branch nurturing, significant breakthroughs could be achieved in substantially reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world, securing Russian nuclear materials from theft or illicit sale, and frustrating rogue states' attempts to import nuclear weapon and missile technologies. Restructuring the missile defense program would save funds and accelerate the deployment of effective defensive systems. As Representative Spratt points out, "it is not for lack of funding but lack of focus that we do not have anything to deploy."
The first priority must be to deploy an effective defense against the threats that U.S. troops and allies are most likely to encounter. Fielding a thoroughly tested and improved Patriot system should help to defend against almost all current missile threats. Missiles with ranges of more than 1,000 kilometers are only a potential threat. Still, work should proceed at a measured pace on THAAD-type systems to counter them. These systems should be considered prototypes that are not to be rushed into the field against threats yet to materialize. Only after they prove themselves against real-life targets and countermeasures should such systems be deployed. Ending unnecessary duplication in both these areas could save billions. Officials should now choose one from the five systems being developed to counter Scuds. Similarly, there seems to be little logic in developing both an Army THAAD and a Navy Upper Tier.
In the fiscal 1997 budget, if the president chooses to keep the extra funds that Congress added into the ballistic missile defense accounts, he should use them to purchase additional test items and to develop a more robust test program. The easiest way to prove that defenses are technically feasible and ensure that American troops are getting the best protection possible would be to thoroughly test all proposed systems against multiple targets that employ the sort of countermeasures and sharp reentry maneuvers that the Scud missiles exhibited during the Gulf war as they broke up upon reentry. National security is not well served by fielding systems that work only against cooperative targets under ideal conditions.
While conservatives lost the debate last year, they have not quit the field. In January 1997, Senate majority leader Lott introduced the National Missile Defense Act as one of 11 Republican priorities for the new Congress. His former colleague, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, has endorsed the administration's "3 plus 3" plan. With more than $4 billion per year devoted to what is now America's largest defense program, parochial interests are propelling missile defense systems forward to production. Ideological agendas, potentially lucrative contracts, and genuine concern will continue to fuel proposals for at least a limited national missile defense system. It is critical that any renewed debate over missile defenses not stall bipartisan action on measures that will eliminate these deadly weapons before they can be launched.
Published in FOREIGN POLICY 106 (Spring 1997). Release date Sunday, March 2, 1997. Copyright 1997 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.