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The shield that would be a threat

Once upon a not-so-long time ago, humankind’s worst impulses were held in check by a policy, tacitly agreed upon by the nuclear powers, known as mutually assured destruction -- MAD. We came right to the edge of the nuclear brink, daring each other into negotiations and holding each other at bay with the knowledge that pushing the button could start the nuclear nightmare that would end life as we know it.

That was, we thought, the logical end to the arms race -- the only ending that would make sense. A tie.

It is disturbing, then, to hear the old cold warrior Donald Rumsfeld, defense secretary from 1975 to ’77 and appointed to the same position by President George W. Bush, rushing ahead, insisting that it is in the country’s best interest to aggressively revive the once-discredited Ronald Reagan dream of a Star Wars missile defense system.

The threat Bush wants to arm against is not a dream. Some of the so-called rogue nations such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea, it is predicted, could have the capacity to deliver intercontinental ballistic missiles in 10 to 15 years. Those missiles could be carrying nuclear warheads or agents of biological or chemical warfare. Security and defense experts, though, tell us that the most likely threat is not ballistic missiles but a terrorist’s suitcase or the terrorist’s missiles coming from a crude delivery system from a boat offshore. The same agents could be delivered effectively and with far less trouble and expense than an intercontinental missile.

The problem with jumping to the level of a missile “shield,” a system designed to shoot down incoming missiles, is the wide and credible fear that the solution could actually be worse than the original threat. For if the Cold War taught us anything, it is that nations, even those already beset with severe economic and political problems, will make enormous sacrifices to match military might.

Our European allies have made it clear they are nervous about Bush’s insistence on a national missile defense. Russia and China are strongly opposed and would certainly react by investing in new rounds of weapons to counter the shield. As a result, much of the rest of the world considers development of the system an irresponsible if not reckless invitation to a new arms race.

Given the enormous complexity of the system and the general failure of components to work properly in tests performed to date, the security the system is supposed to engender is far from being realized.

At least six highly complex systems, tied together over vast distances by high-speed data communications, would have to work perfectly for the shield to be successful. First, a system of satellites would have to detect and begin tracking enemy missiles. Next, an early warning ground radar system that receives information from the satellites would project the missile’s trajectory.

Of course, there would be more than one missile to worry about. An enemy would fire numerous decoys and it would be the job of another group of radar stations to determine the difference between real and fake incoming missiles.

All of the information would be fed through the Battle Management, Command, Control and Communications -- BMC3 -- network, “the heart” of the national missile defense system. The BMC3 would ultimately launch the interceptor booster, a rocket carrying the “exoatmospheric kill vehicle” -- EKV -- to the point of interception of the incoming missile.

If all went well, the kill vehicle would find the target at the right spot in space and crash into it, causing an explosion by collision. One of the unknowns, of course, is the effect of transferring the nuclear nightmare to space.

All at a cost of who knows? Experts say it could reach $100 billion, with no guarantees it would work. Of 18 tests of the interceptor since 1982, only one has succeeded. The most severe critics in the scientific community claim the failure was even greater because all the tests were essentially rigged to succeed.

A greater danger than an enormously expensive non-working system is the prospect that the Star Wars system will divert our energy and attention from the less spectacular and far more tedious task of dogged diplomacy and negotiations with nations that now perceive us as an arrogant enemy.

CIA director George Tenet, in recent testimony before the Senate, said the United States is “increasingly threatened today by a combustible combination of two new forces: the failure of many nations to master modernity -- particularly in the Middle East -- which is producing a lot of unemployed and angry young people in those countries, combined with the spread of new information technologies, which are super-empowering these angry people in ways that not only threaten the stability of the states they live in but also enable them, as individuals, to threaten America. They don’t need a missile to hit us; they can fire a nuclear mortar from a rowboat off Manhattan.”

The point is that putting all our mental energy and money into the missile shield leaves us empty to deal with what is going on now, on the ground -- with real problems not imagined ones. The deficiency of our foreign policy is glaringly exposed.

We have not gone very far down the road of understanding the angry young people and the role we may have played, particularly in the Middle East, in fueling that anger. Nor have we gone far down the road of imaginative foreign policy, or any policy beyond military force and playing countries as if they were pieces on a chessboard.

What good can be done by posing a new threat to the world? We need, instead, new and innovative means of, in Bush’s word, humbly engaging a world that is casting about in post-Cold War fear and uncertainty. Our enormous resources would be better used in non-military aid and in gaining trust.

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001