Commentary Magazine


Missle Defense

To the Editor:

In their article, “Now May We Please Defend Ourselves?” [July], Robert Kagan and Gary Schmitt deal at length with the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, but they do not respond, except tangentially, to two difficult questions that must be answered before a defensive missile system can be built.

First, will a space-based defensive system work? Some scientists say it will, but others say it will not. What evidence do Messrs. Kagan and Schmitt have that a space-based defense system is technically feasible? I am under the impression that tests of prototype anti-missile devices have not been very encouraging. Furthermore, even if single devices could be shown to work against single weapons, would a system incorporating many such devices be capable of thwarting a nuclear attack involving a large number of nuclear missiles?

Second, even if an antimissile system might work, what about funding? Messrs. Kagan and Schmitt acknowledge that “deficit hawks” among Republicans opposed the missile-defense plank of the “Contract With America.” Do they think there is sufficient support in Congress on both sides of the aisle to increase defense appropriations to build such a system?

If they do think so, I fear they live in a dream world. With the end of the cold war, there is little chance that this or any other Congress in the foreseeable future would agree to a defense build-up such as occurred during the early Reagan years. And unless public opinion shifts drastically as the nuclear threat spreads, this situation will not change no matter who occupies the White House or what his opinion might be regarding missile defenses.

If additional money will not be made available, as seems likely, then any serious argument in support of missile defenses must confront the issue of how to redraw the defense budget to accommodate the enormous spending that would be required to deploy such systems. Development costs would be substantial, but they are only the beginning. How would the authors propose to change defense-spending priorities in order to meet their goal?

Unless Messrs. Kagan and Schmitt can answer these difficult questions, their argument is not likely to change very many minds.

Norman I. Gelman
Potomac, Maryland

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To the Editor:

In their informative and well-argued article, Robert Kagan and Gary Schmitt point out that in the Gulf war Iraq’s Scuds caused problems that were not only military but diplomatic:

Iraqi missile attacks on Israel, designed to provoke that country’s entry into the war, threatened to break apart the international coalition the U.S. had laboriously constructed and maintained.

The United States threw away a diplomatic opportunity at that moment. Once the war was under way, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were not going to switch sides if Israel joined the battle. The rigidity of Arab opposition to Israel’s existence was in fact modified, albeit slightly, as a result of the Gulf war. America made a mistake by accepting Israel’s isolation as normal and proper.

The world is not impressed by the permanence and ferocity of anti-Zionism. Somehow, it is considered natural, even boring. Nevertheless, hostility to Israel is dangerous; it is the glue that holds radical Islam together.

The intensity of anti-Zionism is a threat to Israel, of course, but it has also harmed Muslims. Dictators and fanatics use anti-Israel sentiment as a tool to consolidate their own power. And the Arab world—the victim of its own intransigence—still remains untouched by the spread of democracy.

George Jochnowitz
College of Staten Island
City University of New York
Staten Island, New York

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Robert Kagan and Gary Schmitt write:

Norman I. Gelman raises two basic questions: whether space-based missile-defense systems would work and, even if they worked, could the U.S. afford them. With reference to the first, he points to the “not . . . very encouraging” test results of anti-missile devices. But the failed tests to which Mr. Gelman appears to refer have involved land-based, not space-based, systems. Even so, these failures have not generally been tied to the anti-missile technologies used by the interceptors but to the underlying rocket system. Thus they do not directly invalidate the overall feasibility of using land-based systems to intercept theater-range ballistic missiles. As for space-based systems, much of the technology and engineering that would go into such systems has been successfully tested or fielded, in one fashion or another, by NASA, the Air Force, and the Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office.

Can the country afford an effective system of missile defenses? The answer is clearly yes. As a nation, we are spending barely 3 percent of our gross domestic product on defense. During the cold war, we routinely spent more than double that—and did so whether the economy was performing well or not, and whether the government ran budget deficits or surpluses. Finding funds for missile defenses is simply a question of what our political leaders think matters more: protecting an ever-expanding set of domestic-entitlement programs or protecting America’s ability to exercise its role as the globe’s leading state. The key problem the U.S. faces in fielding effective ballistic-missile defenses is no longer technological but, instead, one of strategic understanding and political will.

George Jochnowitz speculates on whether Israel’s participation in the Gulf war would have led the Arab states to drop out of the coalition fighting Iraq. We do not know. What we do know, however, is that the war demonstrated that Israel needs its own missile-defense capability. Our concern is that Israel’s effort to develop that capability is, like that of the United States, falling behind the threats it must soon face. Israel’s Arrow missile-defense system may be adequate for handling Scuds, but it cannot, as presently configured, meet the threat posed by the Shahab-3 and Shahab-4, the newest generation of Iranian theater-range missiles.

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