- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

In his recent annual report, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote: "It is not possible to defend against every threat… . The only defense … is to take the war to the enemy." Pre-emption is not just about Iraq. This administration is using the threat of pre-emptive war as the central theme of its campaign to counter Saddam Hussein's longstanding commitment to acquire a nuclear capability. If administration statements on pre-empting emerging threats likely to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are to be taken as more than rhetoric largely for the benefit of Saddam then Congress and the public alike have been put on notice of a significant evolution in U.S. national security strategy.

This change in U.S. strategy was forced by the proliferation of WMD and delivery systems to states that may not be deterred by the threat of retaliation and non-state terrorist groups. These people want the ability to hurt the United States very badly, and are willing to do just about anything they can to achieve this capability. When and whether they would be willing to use this capability once they achieve it given enough time or money Saddam will only be the first is something we can never truly know; even the best intelligence is limited in its ability to divine intentions (rather than ascertain capabilities). This characterization of the threat raises two further questions: What needs to be done to protect against it and to prevent it from being a threat?

The answer to the first question protection is reflected in current investment in missile defense and intelligence. Building a broad spectrum of capabilities against the full range of WMD-armed threats including the terrorist with home-brewed biological weapons and the "axis of evil" with long-range missiles is going to be expensive in terms of money and resources as well as politically.

The answer to the second question prevention as well as protection brings up the issue of pre-emption. Preventing WMD threats has been a goal of U.S. policy for decades, and it has been largely successful through a range of effective multilateral and bilateral initiatives. But U.S. policy has so far not prevented Saddam and terrorists from coming closer to their WMD goals. That is why a major war with Iraq is being considered as a policy option. Today, the only alternative would either rely on deterrence and intelligence to avoid conceding the first blow to Saddam or to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike, requiring accurate targeting and imposing tremendous political and diplomatic costs.

The test as to whether the administration's statements of pre-emption are going to change national strategy will be reflected in whether it is willing to invest in giving the United States the capability to pre-empt distant WMD threats without having to choose between the unpleasant (regional conflict) or the unacceptable (nuclear strike) options. While such capabilities are likely to be too late for the emerging confrontation with Saddam, there are a number of investments that could provide increased pre-emptive capability in the mid- or longer-term future. These could include investment in weapons such as conventionally armed intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles capable of defeating either time-critical targets (such as missile launchers) or the hardened and deeply buried targets that many potential threats have constructed to house their infrastructure. If the goal is to have an ability to strike with the rapier of conventional force rather than the nuclear bludgeon, this will require a greater investment in intelligence to target these strikes. This may require constellations of radar satellites like the proposed Discoverer II, technically feasible but likely to be costly.

Like missile defense, a pre-emptive capability against WMD is in addition rather than in place of the other spending required by military transformation. Like missile defense, it is likely to be seen by the services as having the potential to act and a diversion and drain of scarce resources. But if the current administration as it considers what to do about Saddam wants future administrations to have a greater range of options against future threats rather than the current options of allowing them the potential first blow, mounting a major regional conflict or launching a nuclear strike, then it will have to start funding a new range of military capabilities and systems that will make the commitment to pre-empt threats more than rhetoric.


David C. Isby is a Washington-based defense analyst and author.

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