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U.S.News & World Report 1/24/00

The countdown to a missile defense

But can it really make Americans safer? By Richard J. Newman

When a Minuteman II missile fires its engines at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Tuesday evening, one of the Pentagon's most nerve-racking waiting games will begin. Technicians will watch anxiously as satellites and experimental new radars try to guide an "interceptor" missile from Kwajalein atoll in the western Pacific toward the Minuteman. About 30 minutes after the launch, fidgety controllers will finally learn whether the interceptor collides with the target about 100 miles above the Pacific–or passes by harmlessly. "The real challenge is not making the system work," jokes one Pentagon official. "It's holding your breath for 30 minutes."

The suspense will be shared by a growing gaggle of nervous onlookers in Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and other capitals. If the interceptor finds its mark, it will be the Pentagon's second consecutive success at "hitting a bullet with a bullet." That will satisfy one of the key criteria for proceeding with a national missile defense system designed to shoot down small numbers of warheads heading toward the United States, a decision President Clinton vows to make by summer.

But few at the White House will be cheering. A successful test would also bolster Republicans who back a more aggressive missile defense shield. It would increase pressure to make deals with Russia, China, and U.S. allies–all opposed to the missile defense plan. And it would leave Clinton–and presidential candidate Al Gore–little room to maneuver out of a $13 billion program that many experts think could fail. "If I were Clinton," says David Tanks of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, "I'd want to leave this bag of worms for the next administration."

Politics probably won't allow that luxury. Under Republican pressure, Clinton and Gore have already adopted a bolder missile defense program than they backed just two years ago. Republicans continue to use the issue to set themselves apart. George W. Bush, for instance, says that if Russia refuses to amend the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty–which prohibits national missile defenses–he would simply withdraw from the treaty. The Clinton administration has been discussing treaty changes with Russia for a year, but Gore has hedged on whether he would be willing to scrap the treaty.

Limited protection. But rebuffing Moscow–and many other world powers–may carry risks that transcend American electoral politics. Russian officials worry that a missile shield could neuter their arsenal of rough- ly 1,000 long-range nuclear-armed missiles, even though the United States says it is meant only to stop small numbers of weapons fired by second-rate powers such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. "The Russians always tell us . . . 'You're aiming this at us,' " says a senior Pentagon official. If the Russians take a hard line, they could, among other things, pull out of nuclear arms control treaties.

Other countries have dug their heels in even deeper. Last week, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry fulminated that a U.S. missile shield "cannot enhance security and stop missile proliferation. On the contrary, [it] will jeopardize security." Even America's European friends are skittish, since a missile plan that alienates Russia could leave them with an angry, insecure neighbor–a point the Russians have eagerly emphasized.

Global acceptance, or at least tolerance, of a U.S. missile shield would still leave open a few nagging questions–such as whether the system will work. Even if this week's test succeeds, many technological hurdles remain, and most experts think the Clinton plan to field a starter system by 2005 is a heady goal. "There are going to be some glitches," says a Pentagon official. "That's what scares me about this schedule." And there are new questions about whether the threat even warrants a missile shield. Satellite images of a key North Korean missile site made public for the first time last week show a dilapidated launch pad seemingly at odds with U.S. estimates of a thriving missile program. The imagery, says the Federation of American Scientists, an arms control group, "reveals the vaunted . . . test site as a facility barely worthy of note." But don't expect to hear that line on the campaign trail.

With Kevin Whitelaw
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