Commentary Magazine

Defenseless America

When, this past April, Hezbollah forces in Lebanon launched waves of short-range ballistic missiles (Katyushas) at northern Israel, President Clinton responded by unveiling Nautilus, a high-tech, ground-based laser device that TRW is cobbling together out of American space-laser technology and that will be made available to protect the Galilee region. Only a month earlier, however, when China, in one of the most ominous and underreported developments in the post-Soviet atomic age, openly threatened to hit Los Angeles with a nuclear-tipped missile, no one in our government considered this an occasion to begin treating missile defense for America as an urgent matter.

Yet the threat posed by ballistic missiles has, in fact, never been more urgent. Advancing technology has created numerous classes of weapons fit for a wide variety of military missions, and is placing them in ever more hands around the globe. According to the CIA, 25 countries are or may be acquiring ballistic missiles and/or weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, chemical, or biological.

The most notorious case is North Korea, a country whose people are starving but which has probably amassed enough nuclear materials for a handful of bombs. To carry them, North Korea has also developed the No Dong, a missile that can reach Seoul and Tokyo; and it is developing the Taepo Dong II, which can reach the rest of Asia plus Alaska and Hawaii.

The North Koreans are marketing these missiles in the Middle East, where Iran is one overt customer. The Taepo Dong I would allow Iran to hit much of Europe and, of course, Israel. But Iran is also shopping in Russia, which is marketing the SS-25 and the SS-19, state-of-the-art intercontinental missiles. With these, Iran or anybody else could hit U.S. soil.1 Ukraine has established a secret “strategic-cooperation” relationship with Libya, which reportedly involves the transfer of missile technology. Ukraine is also negotiating with China to sell the technology for SS-18 missiles—the world’s most powerful.

China already has intercontinental missiles that are exact copies of our old but excellent Titan II. Meanwhile, China is selling CSS-2 medium-range missiles to Pakistan; these could be loaded with locally made nuclear weapons and aimed at India, which is itself developing a second-generation, medium-range missile to carry nuclear weapons in the opposite direction. The Indians are also marketing their new missile in the Middle East.

Iraq, Algeria, and Libya are in the market for Indian as well as for North Korean missiles, but especially for Russian (and, in the case of Libya, Ukrainian) ones. Libya is also carving into a mountain what appears to be a bomb-proof factory for chemical/biological weapons, as well as a garage for mobile missile launchers. Depending on who sells the Libyans what, they would be able to threaten at least Europe and the Middle East, and possibly even the United States, with showers of anthrax spores that could kill millions.

Once upon a time, the ballistic-missile threat to the West was characterized by a rare combination of circumstances: the technology was exotic, and it was held by the Soviet Union, a relatively steady regime which would in any case be restrained (so the reasoning went) by the very awesomeness of nuclear weapons and by what was then known as the balance of terror. Today, ballistic missiles, especially the non-nuclear variety but increasingly the nuclear as well, are more and more frequently the fruit of ordinary technology, and they are in the hands of people who run the gamut of human qualities from the responsible to the nasty, the unpredictable, and the uncontrollable. The internationalization of graduate study in the sciences, and computer-aided design and manufacturing, allow any government to acquire world-class talent and equipment. Moreover, the international market relieves anyone of having to reinvent the technical wheels of missile warfare. So whoever wants missiles is likely to get them, and whoever wants to use them probably will.

In fact, ballistic missiles are becoming the weapon of choice for international coercion. They can cause major damage to others at the push of a button without the need to mobilize an army, and, as Saddam Hussein showed when he hit Israel with Scuds, they can strike an adversary whom one’s armies cannot defeat. It is reasonable to expect that countries wishing to form regional empires will use missiles to bully their neighbors, or as part of larger military operations.

There are other uses as well. By successfully threatening a neighbor with missiles, a regional power may demonstrate the worthlessness of that neighbor’s alliance with America. This is what North Korea has tried to do to South Korea, and China to Taiwan. As a consequence, Japan has been led to wonder about the wisdom of relying on an America that cannot protect its friends, and has initiated a domestic discussion about alternative arrangements for Japanese security. This in itself is bad news: were Japan to become a fully autonomous power, we would lose many of the peaceful fruits of our victory in World War II. Similarly, were missile threats from Iran or Iraq to force Saudi Arabia to lose faith in us, we would cede the benefits of the influence we have exercised in the Persian Gulf for 40 years.

Then, too, missile-wielding governments could blackmail us into acquiescing in their power grabs. If Saddam Hussein had possessed a missile capable of reaching U.S. soil, America would have hesitated even more than it did before interfering with his conquest of Kuwait and his intimidation of Saudi Arabia. By the same token, China’s threat to destroy a defenseless Los Angeles if we meddled in its plans for Taiwan forced a fateful choice: though an actual attack was unlikely, any demonstration of China’s capacity to carry one out—like a nuclear explosion at sea off Taiwan—would have rendered the risk intolerable. (By contrast, had we been able to defend Los Angeles and Taipei against missiles, China would not have advertised its own impotence by brandishing them.)

Our capacity to influence the outcome of many international disputes will depend on our ability to provide protection from missile attack for ourselves and for our clients. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher argued on the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, and again at the Prague congress of the New Atlantic Initiative this past June, if Western capitals are defenseless, a Western foreign policy worthy of the name is altogether inconceivable.




Technically, Defending against ballistic missiles presents a challenge not much greater than building them. By the time America’s first missile made its test flight in 1958, a radar was waiting near the target to pick out the warhead, and an air-defense rocket was being upgraded to hit it. Over the decades, as the technology of missiles has advanced, so has that of anti-missiles. If, year after year, the U.S. government has decided not to deploy defenses, it is not for lack of technically competent means.

From the 1960′s through the early 70′s, defending America against missiles would have meant dotting the country with a dozen radars, each the size of a corporate headquarters, and surrounding them with interceptor rockets, each carrying a nuclear warhead. (The radars would have had to be big in order to see incoming warheads far enough away, and in enough time, to launch the interceptors so that the inevitable nuclear explosion would not be felt on the ground.) There was no doubt that these devices would work, although legitimate technical questions persisted about the cost of defensive versus the cost of offensive weapons, as did inherently unanswerable questions about how many enemy warheads might “leak” through in case of various hypothetical “all-out” attacks.

But such doubts were not the reason the defensive complex was never built. The reason was the ABM (anti-ballistic-missile) treaty of 1972, according to which, in exchange for our commitment to remain vulnerable to attack, the Soviet Union agreed to cap the number of its most threatening missiles at 300, and eventually to reduce that number.

By the 1980′s, however, ABM treaty or no, the most threatening category of Soviet warheads had grown twenty-fold, thus reviving American interest in defense. By then, new technologies were available. Infrared detectors on satellites could track and discriminate among missiles and their warheads sooner and better than huge ground-based radars. Thanks to infrared guidance and to microprocessors, interceptor rockets were now so accurate they no longer needed nuclear explosives. Moreover, defenders were no longer bound to wait for the warheads to detach themselves from their missiles but could more efficiently attack the missiles themselves by means of laser weapons in orbit.

Thus the stage was set for Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in March 1983. According to a widespread misconception, Reagan called for deploying the new and emerging technologies; in fact, however, SDI was a research program only, and in any case Reagan spoke as passionately of a new utopia to be achieved through arms control as he did of safety to be achieved through defense. Still, even though it did not propose the creation of actual weapons, the SDI program stimulated a huge debate about the performance of hypothetical ones. Opponents argued (correctly) that many of these were unfeasible, and that there could be no such thing as a multilayered, fully integrated system, guaranteed to intercept 99.5 percent of whatever might be sent against it. They also argued (incorrectly) that any defensive system could be defeated by offensive countermeasures (“the responsive threat”). So the 80′s passed in fruitless comparisons of nonexistent offenses and defenses, and in pork-barrel projects that spent $30 billion and left America defenseless.

For a brief period after the collapse of the USSR in the early 90′s, it seemed to some optimistic observers that we might be entering a period when we could successfully pretend that a whole class of weapons had never been invented. But then Saddam Hussein actually used ballistic missiles in warfare, and Kim II Sung showed just how widely the technology of missiles and nuclear weapons had spread. Meanwhile, defense technology had taken a few more forward steps: the quality of satellite information concerning incoming warheads had become so precise as to obviate (in many cases) the need for ground-based radars; guidance systems for interceptors had become still more reliable; and the beam directors for space lasers had become instantly retargetable.

By the mid-90′s, the demise of SDI had left only a few development projects standing, but these were relatively far advanced toward constructing actual prototypes of anti-missile devices. Unlike in the mid-80′s, the feasibility and cost of each device were no longer in question. Best of all, discussion now focused on the real issue of how each device would perform, rather than on inherently nebulous estimates of overall system performance.




Suppose, then, we wished to take advantage of what technology offers us. Although there is no scientific way of knowing how much missile defense would be enough at any given time, common sense suggests that we should begin by trying to stop the kinds of missiles and warheads that might be launched against American soil. These are the world’s fastest and most sophisticated—but, as it happens, devices for handling them are just as easy to build as devices for handling lesser threats, or easier.

Most of these devices can be launched from the ground or from ships. The key to their performance is a series of satellites called the Space and Missile Tracking System (SMTS), which provides enough information to launch interceptors long before incoming warheads become visible to radar. Since interceptors launched early have more time to adjust their course, the speed at which incoming warheads are traveling, which has been a big problem until now, is of relatively minor significance. SMTS satellites could be in place by 2001, and they would extend the range, accuracy, and effectiveness of every American interceptor against all kinds and speeds of warheads.

The Patriot PAC-3, successor to the well-known device from the Gulf war, carries one such class of interceptor; the first units could be ready by 1998. Though they are the most radar-dependent of all American defenses, a battery of PAC-3′s with a dozen interceptors, if it were also using information relayed back from space, could be relied on to defend a few square miles against a half-dozen moderately fast warheads at a time. A few dozen batteries could thus protect sizable U.S. military forces operating on hostile shores.

The problem with a defensive weapon like the PAC-3, which has to sit close to the target, is getting it there: each battery, minus its support units, would take at least two of America’s biggest transport aircraft. Worse, no amount of Patriots could protect sprawling, unfortified populations (like Los Angeles). For that purpose, the intercepts must occur far enough away so that nuclear, chemical, or biological residues do not fall on the targets. The main reason debris from Scuds and Patriots rained down on U.S. troops, and on Tel Aviv, during the Gulf war was that the Patriots could not be fired until their radar had searched for and found the Scud—all too close to home.



If the PAC-3 operates inside the atmosphere and near the target, the Army’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), whose first units could be available in 1999, has a radar that sees farther and an optically guided interceptor that is supposed to hit a warhead on the edge of the atmosphere. Unlike Patriot, THAAD can launch simply on the basis of accurate data from satellites, and hence the system can intercept missiles more than 100 miles away from cities. Although moving each THAAD battery would take at least four giant planes, it could provide a meaningful defense if the targets to be protected were small or few and if the incoming warheads were neither too fast nor too numerous.

Then there is the Navy’s Upper Tier system, which uses the radar of existing AEGIS air-defense ships but whose very fast, optically guided interceptor can also rely on information from satellites to hit a warhead over 1,000 miles away. Since Upper Tier hits its target at very high altitudes, moreover, it has an excellent chance of intercepting the fastest warheads; and since its range is potentially so great, it could be brought to bear against warheads coming into any part of a vast area.

If the Navy goes ahead with its tentative plans for equipping 22 existing AEGIS cruisers with 650 Upper Tier interceptors beginning in 1999, coastal America, plus allies like Japan, plus parts of Europe and Israel that are accessible from the sea, could count on considerable protection. Upper Tier could also be deployed in fixed stations on land to cover territory away from the coast.

Finally there is the space-based laser (SBL), the only device now under development that can hit missiles soon after they are launched—i.e., while their engines are still boosting them into ballistic trajectory. Work on this chemical-fired device began under the Carter administration, was nearly brought to a halt under the SDI program in favor of more glamorous ideas long since discredited, and since then has limped along on reduced funding. Nevertheless, the Pentagon, Congress, and industry agree that a test model could fly by 1999. Each SBL, depending on distance, could destroy a missile by focusing on it for one or more seconds; could hit missiles of all ranges regardless of origin; and could carry enough fuel for a hundred “shots.” A dozen truck-sized SBL’s in orbit would cover the earth. Greater numbers would ensure more robust, overlapping coverage.

Each of these weapons would be useful by itself, and all would be more useful together. Some areas, like the Galilee in Israel or a beachhead occupied by American or allied forces and threatened by low-grade missiles, might require only the less potent devices. But since these areas can be hit by fast, sophisticated missiles as well, and since, with some exceptions, the space laser and the Upper Tier system can take care of low- as well as high-grade missiles, it would make sense to buy space-based lasers for boost-phase defense, plus the Navy Upper Tier system to catch the remaining missiles in mid-flight, and to install units of the Navy system in inland parts of the U.S., making sure that they could launch interceptors primarily on the basis of cues from SMTS satellites. How many of each weapon we might want for the long run can be decided only in the long run; the essential thing is to begin.




But that is not likely to happen. For one thing, the Clinton administration, backed by liberal opinion and most Congressional Democrats, has a different view of the threat with which we are faced. Citing a special National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) completed by the CIA in December 1995, the President has argued that it may take ten years before North Korea’s Taepo Dong II, the most advanced “rogue-state” missile capable of reaching U.S. soil, will be fully operational2; that missiles being built in other third-world countries do not appear to be of intercontinental range; and that it will take quite some time for such countries to develop intercontinental rockets from scratch.

What about missiles in the hands of Russia and China? These, the President contends, are not threats at present, but if we started trying to defend U.S. soil, the Chinese and especially the Russians would turn their shaky strategic cooperation with us into outright enmity. Hence, by trying to defend ourselves, we would be creating threats that do not now exist—threats that we could not defend against no matter how hard we tried.

In short, the only real missile threat in the world today is the one which third-world nations pose to one another, to U.S. allies, and possibly to U.S. troops abroad, but not to American soil itself. We are meeting that threat, the President asserts, by building theater missile defenses (TMD) like Nautilus; what we must not do is to embark on a national missile defense (NMD) designed to protect the United States, something which not only is unnecessary but would involve us in a possible violation of the ABM treaty.

These arguments are open to objection. The NIE, to begin with, overlooked the obvious: since third-world countries are not building missiles from scratch, but rather are buying major pieces of technology as they go along, their missiles will be ready much sooner than a decade from now; should they begin to buy missiles outright, they could have them tomorrow. As for the missile force in possession of the Russians, it will surely change hands many times during its remaining half-century of useful life, and no one can predict with utter confidence the character of those hands at any given moment; and as for the Chinese, they, as we have seen, have already made explicit threats to use missiles against us. In other words, the demise of the Soviet Union and the “opening” of China have far from foreclosed the threat of nuclear war.

But the heart of the administration’s position rests in its preference for defending “theaters” threatened by short- or medium-range missiles over defending the “nation.” This distinction does not reflect technical or military facts, or even geography. The various theater-missile-defense devices, including the Nautilus laser now being prepared for northern Israel, would be, for that country, a national defense—and the same goes for American theater missile defenses deployed in Korea or Japan against threats from Pyongyang or Beijing, or in Italy against threats from Tripoli or possibly Belgrade.

Indeed, the Clinton administration has agreed that Russia can and should deploy theater missile defenses to protect itself, and everyone expects the Russians will do whatever it takes to maximize the capacity of those defenses. Russia has already developed, and is offering for sale abroad, a missile-interceptor system (the A-300) whose performance exceeds the limits the administration has set for American TMD systems. Russia has also given all its TMD interceptors the capacity to use data from external sensors (distant radars and satellites), with no objection from Washington. But the administration has refused to allow U.S. interceptors the same capability, claiming (correctly) that the use of such sensors would turn just about all theater defenses into national ones.

It would seem, then, that the only “theater” that is to be prevented from benefiting from TMD is the United States of America.



What the distinction between “theater” and “national” defense really reflects is the anti-defense logic of the ABM treaty, as applied to America alone. The treaty itself restricts missile defenses to a single site, and prohibits giving them the capacity to intercept “strategic” missiles (a category it does not define) away from that site. But, in light of the past quarter-century’s developments in technical capabilities, American diplomats and arms controllers committed to the treaty have “understood” it retroactively as requiring restraint in the deployment of whatever interceptor technology might protect American soil. Hence the new category of permissible (TMD) devices, defined by their certifiable impotence against the kinds of missiles that might reach America.

Indeed, the Clinton administration has gone farther, rejecting proposals that the U.S. deploy space-based lasers or interceptors in orbits over the third world, even though such devices would not be able to see or interfere with intercontinental missiles coming from Russia to America, and even though such deployments would be well within the spirit of the ABM treaty. It seems that the administration does not want the U.S. to possess any device which at some future time could be deployed to defend America, and that, one suspects, is the core of its objection to defenses in space altogether.

And the Republicans? Their presidential candidate, Bob Dole, has spoken eloquently on the need for defense, and has endorsed the Defend America Act, a bill introduced by the Republican congressional leadership which pledges to deploy some kind of national defense by 2003. But there is less to the Act than meets the eye. It does not authorize a single dollar or move forward a single weapon; if passed, it would merely constitute a promise by the U.S. government to legislate in the future. The Act does not even call for enforcing the missile-defense provisions of legislation passed in 1995-96, which President Clinton is ignoring. Nor does it call for abrogating the ABM treaty.

The Republicans’ half-hearted challenge has made it possible for the President to continue proclaiming his adherence to the notion of missile defense while doing nothing about it. And as we go on dithering, others go on buying, building, and laying their plans.


1 The missiles are being offered for sale ostensibly as launch vehicles for satellites. The difference between a space launcher and a missile lies in how the guidance system is programmed.

2 As noted above, the Taepo Dong II, already in a relatively advanced stage of development, can reach Hawaii and Alaska; as Clinton's former CIA director James Woolsey has sarcastically pointed out, these states, too, constitute U.S. soil.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.