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In a time of heightened political tension, possessing an ABM system might encourage a nuclear-armed nation to strike first

Preserving the ABM Treaty

How does it feel to be a citizen of a "rogue state?"

Since taking office, the Bush administration has brazenly disregarded one international agreement after another. They've opted out of the Kyoto accord on global warming, an international agreement to enforce the ban on biological weapons, and a treaty establishing an International Court of Justice, among others.

Now, as the centerpiece of its policy of doing whatever it chooses no matter what the rest of the world thinks, the Bush administration has announced it will withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. According to the text of the treaty, either party can withdraw if "extraordinary events" have "jeopardized its supreme interests." Has that standard truly been reached in 2001? At best, Bush's plan is extremely premature; at worst, it has the potential to destabilize the world's strategic balance.

Bush's high-handed plans have already angered much of the world, including our closest European allies. Nevertheless, the White House has decided to abrogate an international agreement that has held the arms race in check for 30 years.

Why did the United States and the Soviet Union agree to severely limit the development of anti-ballistic missiles in the first place? What's the problem with ABMs?

In a time of heightened political tension, possessing an ABM system might encourage a nuclear-armed nation to strike first. It would be better, the thinking would go, to destroy most of the enemy's missiles in their silos, and then use ABMs against the few warheads remaining. For that reason, developing an ABM system also has the potential to push a nation's adversaries toward an early first strike, before those ABMs are fully deployed.

It also turns out that building ABMs makes little economic sense. It's cheaper to counter an ABM system by simply building more nuclear missiles. An ABM system can also be defeated by arming nuclear missiles with countermeasures to confuse the interceptors; building enough interceptors to take out both the warheads and their proxies is prohibitively expensive. And finally, because there is no way to test the effectiveness of an ABM system under actual wartime conditions, its reliability will always be suspect.

For those reasons, the world's nuclear superpowers recognized that ABMs would make the arms race both more dangerous and more expensive. So in 1972, they agreed to forego developing and deploying anti-ballistic missiles. Since then, the treaty has been modified several times by mutual consent. In 1974, the parties allowed one another to establish two ABM sites — later reduced to just one. The Soviets positioned nuclear-armed interceptors to provide some defense for Moscow. The United States deployed interceptor missiles in North Dakota, but that base has long-since been decommissioned. More recently, the treaty was modified again to allow the development of theater (shorter range, tactical) defensive missiles such as the Patriot and THAAD.

According to the Bush administration, the purpose of its proposed National Missile Defense (NMD) is to intercept an accidental launch or a few missiles fired by a "rogue state." This sounds like a noble and reasonable goal. But suppose a small, nuclear-armed nation decided to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon. Would they fire a missile thus offering their country up for fiery retaliation? Wouldn't it be cheaper, easier and less risky to tuck a warhead inside a cargo ship or rental truck and detonate it anonymously? Star Wars technology isn't much good against a bomb in a crate. A much better defense would be to find peaceful, negotiated accommodations with those nations.

As far as accidental launches are concerned, there are more effective-and much less costly-means of prevention. President Bush should be commended for his proposal to reduce the size of our nuclear stockpile. Decreasing the number of warheads in the world's atomic arsenals is the easiest way to reduce the likelihood of an accidental launch. Agreeing to lower the missiles' alert status, and to remove specific targeting information from their computers would decrease the risk even further.

Still, the Bush administration is willing to toss aside a successful treaty. What will they replace it with? A missile defense system that does not yet exist and will never work perfectly, no matter how advanced our technology becomes.

So far there have been only a handful of tests of the latest incarnation of the Star Wars defense. NMD is designed to hit incoming warheads with small, speedy and maneuverable kinetic (nonexplosive) guided missiles. The challenge is often, aptly, compared to "hitting a bullet with a bullet." The most recent test, "succeeded" only because the target warhead, following a predetermined trajectory at a predetermined time, broadcast homing signals to the missile sent to destroy it North Korea or Iraq are not likely to be so helpful.

National Missile Defense is a very long way from being able to interdict even a single incoming warhead, never mind destroying a weapon that deploys countermeasures such as radar-reflecting metal chaff or dozens of dummy warheads. We mustn't rush to discard the ABM treaty unilaterally in favor of a defense that's still little more than a fantasy in the minds of the president and a few Air Force generals.

The ABM treaty is still worth preserving. Rather than scrapping it altogether, leaders around the world are urging the United States and Russia to renegotiate the treaty to permit development of a limited, shared National Missile Defense. Thus far, Bush is disregarding this advice.

So here stands the United States, having isolated itself from the community of nations, insisting we're going to deploy NMD.

Eventually, some form of limited missile defense may prove to be technologically feasible and strategically wise; many defense experts seem to think so. However, if the United States is to pursue this possibility we must do so not as a solitary "rogue," but only as an international leader in consultation and cooperation with the other nations of the world.

A detailed analysis of the NMD debate is available from the Center for Defense Information at

Paul Fleisher is a veteran teacher in Richmond Public Schools, and author of two dozen books for educators and young people, including "Understanding the Vocabulary of the Nuclear Arms Race."

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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