- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2001

In a previous world that existing prior to September 11 I might have given this disorganized book a respectful review. After all, ballistic missile defense can be debated rationally, and the authors hold the kind of academic and governmental credentials that urge serious consideration. But today "The Phantom Defense" seems such a mush of pernicious cliches, willful naivete, technological tunnel-vision and just plain meandering goofiness that a stern review might almost be considered a public service. At issue here is not the authors' total opposition to missile defense, at least missile defense as it has been conceived and developed these past four decades. The issue is their failure of mind, a failure that their impressive resumes can neither hide nor excuse.

Or maybe their resumes can excuse it. For these are old men, wedded perhaps to the ways of the bygone era in which they made their careers, in love perhaps with the belief that something cannot be done because for so many years they've been saying it, and that it should not be done because … well, because other people might not like it.

The authors a former Foreign Service officer, a former CIA analyst and a former Pentagon consultant serve up the usual three objections to missile defense. It's technically impossible. It would destabilize arms-control. It would provoke new arms races. They also indulge in the standard left-wing criticisms (not entirely wrong) of the Military-Industrial Complex and American foreign policy generally. They equate support for missile defense with either greed or ignorance and dismiss supporters as members of the wacko far right. They offer a few over-recycled bromides concerning various forms of American arrogance and conclude that national security is best achieved by treaties, chopping up our own weapons in order to set an example for others and giving lots more money to the Third World.

The authors begin by raising a valid question. Why has $100 billion (current dollars) spent on research and testing not produced a single piece of usable hardware, let alone an effective system? They offer up a scrawny history of anemic efforts counterpointed by extravagant claims, but never seem willing to consider one very plausible answer. Nothing was achieved because nothing was intended. Leave aside the political aspect whether Ronald Reagan ever intended to deploy anything (I believe he did not) or whether Bill Clinton set his own program up to fail (it's arguable).

For nearly half-a-century, ballistic missile defense has been run mostly as a sinecure, a government works project for scientists and engineers scattered through the universities, the national labs, the contractors and the military. The dominant pattern has been lethargy, sloth and cushy cynicism. I first discovered this some years ago while covering the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI); the problem seems only to have intensified since. Perhaps it's time to get some new skin in the game.

Of course, the authors would answer, the laws of physics are the same for everybody. Indeed, they base their technological opposition less on the engineering difficulties of building a system than on one physical fact: Radar cannot discriminate between real warheads and decoys in space. They claim that no other remote sensor can, either. Well, how about some new sensors?

The authors fret that missile defense would destabilize arms control. What of it? During the Cold War's final years, a new phrase entered the lexicon: mutual unilateral cuts. We and the Russians have been doing it ever since. And by what illogic may it be presumed that a system that will never, ever work is also destabilizing?

As for the authors' belief that North Korea, Iran, Iraq and their brethren will be so inspired by our willingness to forego defenses that they'll abandon their own missile projects it's hard to believe that three men of such erudition and attainment could never have encountered evil before. Or perhaps they genuinely believe that our benevolent example alone can tame the world's Saddam Husseins and Osama bin Ladens.

So, what of missile defense? The short answer: It's neither sin nor salvation. It's an aspect of national security that deserves to be explored and taken for what it's worth, whatever that might turn out to be. In this endeavor, as in all scientific and engineering ventures, there are only two certainties. People who say that something can't be done are generally not those who do it. And with each passing year, the list of things that couldn't be done, but got done, grows longer.

Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

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