- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2000

President Clinton intends to decide later this year whether to deploy a limited national missile defense (NMD) to protect the United States from ballistic missile attacks by rogue states. Although the case for deployment is widely supported by Americans, recent test failures have called into question the readiness of this technology. As a result, many are now calling on the president to defer this decision and allow his successor to decide the issue once a new administration takes office.

Deferment would be a wise choice, but not because of recent tests. The United States needs an approach to ballistic-missile defense and arms control that ensures the security of its citizens and interests, meets its responsibilities abroad, and enjoys bipartisan backing at home. Current NMD plans meet none of these criteria. Technology isn't the problem; it's the system concept that's lacking.

Many recognize that NMD is essential if the United States is to remain a force for peace in the world. Yet, Russia opposes an American NMD, and America's own European allies doubt its wisdom. Caught between foreign obstacles and domestic urgency, there is a danger that the United States is about to take the path of least technical and diplomatic resistance hasty deployment of a "thin" system that might reduce Russian and European opposition but prove inadequate to meet the rogue missile threat. Under these circumstances, the president would be well-advised to give his successor the chance to select a more effective system. By providing more time to consult with its allies and, more important, by developing a system that would protect them too, the United States can obtain both adequate missile defense and alliance solidarity.

Admittedly, effective missile defense will require wholesale modification of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, to the chagrin of the Russians and, for the moment, many of our allies. As its first article makes clear, the ABM Treaty was meant to ban ballistic missile defense of national territory, and it is tightly drafted to do just that. It permits the United States but a single land-based site for missile-defense radar and interceptors. Preferring to minimize changes needed in the treaty, the administration is planning to build such a site in the near future, and a second site thereafter. U.S. negotiators are now seeking Russian consent to minor changes in the treaty to allow this capability.

Unfortunately, the planned system could be foiled by countermeasures, such as decoys and submunitions, that will be within the technical reach of any state capable of developing weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles. It also would be inadequate to defeat more sizeable and geographically dispersed rogue missile threats that could arise. Thus, the changes to the ABM Treaty now being sought could leave the United States with ineffective missile defense or require more radical treaty changes down the road. The option currently available to the president could produce the worst of all worlds: inadequate protection despite billions spent, disgruntled allies, and the ABM Treaty's day of reckoning at best only delayed.

There is an alternative, however. Although the ABM Treaty would have to be amended more drastically, the United States could develop a multi-layer missile defense system that would assure lasting, effective defense and earn the support of key allies. One layer could be U.S.-based interceptors like those in the current plan. The next layer could consist of sea-based interceptors, deployed wherever needed to defend not only U.S. territory but U.S. forces and allies as well. A third layer could use a forward-deployed system to intercept missiles while still in their boost phase. These three layers could be unified by an intelligent battle management network, which would share target tracks so that "leakers" from one layer could be picked off by the next.

Such a system is more practical than one might think. Land-based, sea-based and boost-phase interceptors are already at one or another stage of development, though they need to be integrated architecturally, electronically and bureaucratically. With a purposeful program and bipartisan support, assembling this capability would not take much longer than the current deployment schedule. Getting missile defense right is more important than getting it fast.

Perhaps even the Russians could participate in such a system, thus making them more amenable to rewriting the ABM Treaty. To field such a robust capability, the United States needs the right to deploy interceptors and sensors in any medium land, sea, air and space and to test them against missiles of any range and speed. This will require more extensive changes in the ABM Treaty than are now being sought.

Even though such changes would not undermine the credibility of Russia's strategic deterrent, Russian opposition is certain. Because the rest of the world would be aghast if the United States withdrew from the treaty to protect its "supreme interests," it would be best to renegotiate it. But until the United States knows what treaty rights it needs to permit effective missile defense, and until we can count on allied support for rather than opposition to these changes, negotiations are premature.

If missile defense against rogues is needed at all and we think it is the country should make a clear decision to build a system that will do the job, enhance allied security and signal America's commitment to maintain, not retreat from, its global responsibilities. If that means waiting a year or so until the right option is available, it is well worth it.

David Gompert is president of RAND Europe and former senior director on the NSC staff. Jeffrey Isaacson is vice president of RAND.

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