On May 13, 1935, a small convoy-two Royal Air Force lorries, a couple of cars, six men-pulled into the seafarers’ village of Orford, about 150 kilometers northeast of London. Armed with some crude equipment, the men quickly set up shop in abandoned air force huts. Their secret mission: to save the United Kingdom from air attack. It was almost five years to the day before Hitler’s invasion of Western Europe. But their early start developing the technology now known as radar proved critical in warning of approaching bombers in the Battle of Britain-saving thousands of lives and ultimately forcing the Nazis to abort plans to invade Great Britain.
Whenever the debate about U.S. development of a missile defense system heats up-and this month marks the 20th anniversary of the “Star Wars” speech in which Ronald Reagan proposed a system to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete”-I think of Britain’s radar pioneers. The analogy is far from perfect. Success for the British meant shooting down a small percentage of enemy bombers; in defending against a nuclear attack, even a 95 percent kill rate could mean atrocious losses. Still, there are striking parallels. Like today’s nuclear missile threat, the threat to England in 1935 was vague. Radar then was completely unproved, as is missile defense these days (”Why Missile Defense Won’t Work,” TR April 2002). And like many of today’s experts, leading authorities believed an effective defense was not feasible. As former prime minister Stanley Baldwin had famously told the House of Commons, “the bomber will always get through.”
So let me be blunt: given the stakes, there can be no excuse for not immediately pushing development of a missile defense system. This is not to say, however, that I wholeheartedly back the Bush administration’s program, which might deploy the first elements in Alaska as early as next year. In fact, I don’t support this plan, because it appears that certain important issues are not getting proper attention. In particular, two questions must be addressed: How narrow is our definition of missile defense? And, Is the system being deployed on the right scale and within a smart strategic framework?
Let’s start with the definition of the problem. The Clinton administration sought to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) only in midcourse-after reaching space but before reentry. Many experts, though, back boost phase defense, in which interceptors are deployed from bases or ships near enemy positions to destroy missiles before they reach space. This approach is both cheaper and technically easier, although it raises different geopolitical and logistics issues. The Bush administration, to its credit, has broadened the definition of missile defense and is now pursuing both boost phase and midcourse interception. In fact, its plan is to have as many as four shots instead of one at each enemy missile-a big reason the budget skyrocketed from $5.3 billion to $7.8 billion in fiscal 2002.