GORDON R. MITCHELL
THE NATIONAL MISSILE DEFENSE FALLACY
MONEY FLOWS INTO A FLAWED SYSTEM,
AND A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY GROWS
Saturday, April 29, 2000
Russia's recent approval of the START II arms control agreement and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty have given a huge boost of momentum to nations and movements calling for worldwide nuclear disarmament.
But documents released yesterday by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reveal that the United States has staked out a negotiating position ruling out any future reductions in strategic nuclear warheads below the 1,500-2,000 level and encouraging Russia to maintain its nuclear forces on constant alert.
Why would the United States seek to lock in Russia's offensive forces and pass up an opportunity to dismantle permanently the Cold War nuclear arsenal? The answer is National Missile Defense.
In ABM treaty "Talking Points" presented by U.S. negotiators to their Russian counterparts earlier this year in Geneva (and just released to the public yesterday), the United States attempts to assuage Russian concerns regarding NMD with the observation that "under the terms of any possible future arms reduction agreements, large, diversified, viable arsenals of strategic offensive weapons" will exist on both sides, and that forces of this size "can easily penetrate a limited NMD system of the type that the United States is now developing."
In plain terms, U.S. negotiators are saying to Russia: Don't worry about NMD because it won't work against you, but you might want to maintain a huge nuclear arsenal just to make sure.
Whether Russian officials buy into this contorted logic remains to be seen. But one thing made clear by yesterday's disclosures is that serious questions remain about the effectiveness of NMD to intercept incoming ballistic missiles.
Last year, a blue-ribbon panel of military experts cautioned that an artificially compressed test schedule in the proposed NMD system invites a politically driven "rush to failure." Recent NMD test results indicate that missile defense officials blew through this yellow light. Instead of taking time to right the course of the technically troubled program, scientists hurried through lackluster experiments and now President Clinton appears poised deploy NMD,
even though the scientific evidence does not yet support such a decision.
A premature decision to build NMD before it is proven feasible would lock in at least $60 billion in future U.S. missile defense spending (according to figures released this week by the Congressional Budget Office). Presumably, disbursement of these funds to private vendors would be contingent on contractors demonstrating a track record of engineering success.
However, the history of strategic deception in the U.S. missile defense program shows that military officials and industry leaders take extraordinary measures to keep Pentagon dollars flowing, even when poor test results suggest that continued funding of beleaguered defense systems would be wasteful and imprudent.
Wednesday's Post-Gazette editorial "Russian Reversal" observed that "Billions of research dollars suggest that it is possible to build a system that could provide protection from an errant missile . . ."
On this faulty logic, the amount of money spent on missile defense (roughly $100 billion since 1983) matters more than scientific data in determining whether or not such a shield will work. But dollar bills, no matter how plentiful, cannot paper over the fundamental scientific flaws in the U.S. missile defense program, which is deeply corrupted by interlocking interests that connect hawkish politicians to profit-hungry defense contractors.
The case of Nira Schwartz provides one disturbing example. As a former senior engineer at TRW, Schwartz worked on computer software enabling NMD interceptors to discriminate between target missiles and decoys. This same software could eventually be used in a NMD system deployed by America.
In freshly unsealed documents filed in a Los Angeles federal district court, Schwartz alleges that TRW "provided to the government false EKV performance reports, false test results, [and] false test procedures," then fired her when she protested such fraudulent activity. Schwartz's charges are corroborated by affidavits filed by retired TRW senior staff engineer Roy Danchick, as well as an investigation conducted by the investigative branch of the Department of Defense 1s Office of Inspector General.
Current NMD deployment plans call for no significant institutional changes in the overall leadership structure or bureaucratic makeup of the U.S. missile defense enterprise. It is reasonable to expect this enterprise to suppress unfavorable test results, to silence whistleblowers, and to use the classification system strategically to protect the funding windfall of a positive NMD deployment decision.
The end result of this process could be deployment of a deeply flawed NMD system that is technically bankrupt, yet has an illusory veneer of effectiveness. Such a "hush to failure" outcome would not only reverse the recent and dramatic progress toward worldwide nuclear disarmament; it would also rival Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative as the most lavish and wasteful "big science" program ever funded by a government.
Increasingly, NMD advocates point to the possibility of "rogue state blackmail" as an emerging threat justifying rapid pursuit of missile defense. This "nuclear blackmail" scenario envisages the United States embroiled in a diplomatic or military dispute where the adversary attempts to exact concessions by threatening the American homeland with a missile attack.
NMD, it is argued, would preserve U.S. "freedom of movement" in such a blackmail scenario, by giving the president room to call the "rogue state's" nuclear bluff. To do this, however, the president would need to have supreme confidence in the system. If such confidence was based on faulty or doctored feasibility data, the stage could be set for a
miscalculation of tragic proportions.
Misplaced faith in an illusory missile defense shield could embolden the president to take diplomatic risks that would recklessly expose possibly hundreds of thousands of Americans to nuclear attack.
There are far better (and more thrifty) strategies for achieving nuclear safety, such as de-alerting of nuclear arms, separation of nuclear warheads from delivery systems, and multilateral endorsement of a nuclear "no first use" pledge. These measures, outlined Monday at the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference by Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa, are likely to gain support on the world stage in upcoming weeks and months.
U.S. policy on missile defense is badly out of step with science, running hard against the grain of world opinion, and probably much more technically beleaguered than Pentagon spokespersons know or care to admit.
Memo: Gordon R. Mitchell is an assistant professor of communication and director of debate at the University of Pittsburgh. His book "Strategic Deception: Rhetoric, Science and Politics in Missile Defense Advocacy" is forthcoming from Michigan State University Press.
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