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Political Battles

The Clinton administration and congressional Republicans have clashed over the timing of deploying a national missile defense system. Last spring, the Defend America Act, introduced in both houses of Congress, mandated deployment by 2003 of a “highly effective” and “affordable” system that would protect all 50 states from “limited, unauthorized, or accidental” attacks. But when the Congressional Budget Office estimated that such a system would cost $3160 billion to build and an additional $24 billion annually to maintain, the House Republicans dropped their legislation out of concern that their party’s budget hawks would not vote for it.

The Republicans have written the National Missile Defense Act of 1997 with an eye toward getting a more favorable cost estimate: they have eliminated the requirement that the system be “highly effective,” and specify now only that the system be able to deal with very small-scale attacks. Although the requirements remain classified, the system reportedly must now defend against attacks of no more than five to twenty “simple” warheads-that is, warheads that do not incorporate any countermeasures that would help them evade detection and interception.

This experience points to the difficult task that national missile defense advocates face in defining a system that is both politically attractive (it must be seen as necessary and effective) and politically feasible (it must be affordable). The specifics of these defense systems have been left vague precisely because it is difficult to satisfy both requirements simultaneously. Right now no potentially hostile country other than Russia or China has long-range missiles that can hit the United States. Therefore, it has been politically useful to require the system to defend against unauthorized and accidental attacks by Russia or China-these, at least, are threats that exist today. Contrary to common perception, however, “unauthorized” and “accidental” do not necessarily mean “small.” Depending on where in the chain of command the control breaks down, such an attack could be quite large. Some argue that the most feasible unauthorized attack would come from a Russian submarine, which carries some 200 nuclear warheads. Yet, defending against an attack of this size requires a much larger and more expensive system than one designed to swat down a few errant missiles.

The Clinton administration holds that there is no immediate threat and that deploying a system before it is needed only guarantees that the technology will be outdated by the time a threat develops. Instead, under its “3 + 3” plan, the administration intends to develop within three years (by 2000) a system that could be deployed in an additional three years (by 2003) if a threat emerges. If in 2000 no such threat is deemed to exist, development will continue. That way, an up-to-date system will always be three years from deployment. President Clinton thus far has prevailed: he vetoed the fiscal 1996 defense authorization bill in large part because the bill’s insistence on missile defense would, he said, put the United States “on a collision course with the ABM Treaty.” Since this year’s missile-defense legislation still mandates deployment by 2003, President Clinton is expected to veto it if it is passed.

Although Clinton has won each battle over deployment of national missile defenses, the Republicans may be winning the war. They have clearly set the terms of the debate, and in trying to undercut their plan for mandated deployment, Clinton’s 3+3 plan will move the United States much closer to deployment of national missile defenses than it has ever been.

By remaining vague on the details of its 3+3 plan, the administration has been able to avoid the question of compliance with the ABM Treaty. Although Clinton cited the treaty as justification for his veto of the fiscal 1996 authorization bill, deployment of the 3 + 3 system would almost certainly violate the treaty as well. The bottom line is that the ABM Treaty forbids nationwide defenses, and building a system that covers only part of the United States would be politically unacceptable. Any defense system that complies with the ABM treaty would leave unprotected large parts of both coasts, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

Providing coverage of the entire United States against even limited attacks would require either that the United States and Russia agree to modify the ABM Treaty or that the United States withdraw from it. The first prospect is unlikely, and the second unjustified. Russia has no incentive to agree to a treaty modification to accommodate U.S. national defenses. Even a limited defensive system would put into place the sensors and other infrastructure needed to allow a relatively rapid expansion to a larger-scale system. And withdrawing from the treaty is permitted only if “extraordinary events” jeopardize U.S. “supreme interests”-a position that is difficult to argue.

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