Why the best offense is a good missile defense.

As it happens, all this ideological posturing bears little relation to the world in which we now live. In fact, the strategic logic of missile defense runs entirely counter to the claims of isolationist champions and liberal critics alike. The real rationale for missile defense is that without it an adversary armed with long-range missiles can, as Robert Joseph, President Bush's counterproliferation specialist at the National Security Council (NSC), argues, "hold American and allied cities hostage and thereby deter us from intervention." Or, as a recent rand study on missile defense puts it, " B allistic missile defense is not simply a shield but an enabler of U.S. action." In other words, missile defense is about preserving America's ability to wield power abroad. It's not about defense. It's about offense. And that's exactly why we need it.

Frances Fitzgerald notwithstanding, the debate over anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems began not in the Reagan era but in the Roosevelt era, with the appearance of the first operational ballistic missile, the German V-2, late in World War II. (After being propelled outside Earth's atmosphere by rocket engines, ballistic missiles rely on gravity.) Within a year of the war's end, the Pentagon launched two programs to explore ways to counter the threat. By the mid-'50s, first the Air Force and then the Army had devised ABM proposals that would combine long-distance radar with nuclear-tipped interceptor rockets. The Army moved forward with its ABM program in the 1960s and by decade's end was set to begin construction. (A missile defense system was, in fact, briefly deployed--guarding a single missile site in North Dakota-- before being scrapped in 1974.)

During the same decade, however, Robert McNamara, defense secretary under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, undermined the case for missile defense by enshrining in official policy a version of deterrence theory, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which held that the surest way to avert nuclear holocaust was for the Soviet Union and the United States to remain vulnerable to each other's arsenals. Consequently, MAD's defenders deemed anything that diminished this mutual vulnerability--particularly missile defense--a threat to stability. It was a curious argument, and not everyone bought it. Strategists like Albert Wohlstetter and Herman Kahn continued to make the case for missile defense, as did scientists like Edward Teller, who argued that it was better to "shoot at enemy missiles than to suffer attack and then have to shoot at people in return." Nonetheless, after years of bitter debate, much of it poisoned by the toxic residue of Vietnam, the McNamara logic prevailed. In 1972 the Nixon administration signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow, effectively banning national missile defense (NMD).

The Star Wars debate of the 1980s, set off by President Reagan's proposal to build space-based defenses, basically amounted to a rehashing of "the great ABM debate" of the 1960s. But the technology had grown more sophisticated and the arguments more crude. Strategists and scientists faded into the background, supplanted by Republican revolutionaries and bien- pensant leftists. Nothing was ever deployed, which was just as well, since the technology wasn't there and, even if it had been, the Soviets could have easily overwhelmed it with their huge arsenal. And then the ussr crumbled, ending the argument. Now, with President Bush's pledge to deploy an ABM system, the debate enters its latest installment. Only this time something's different: the world.

Aside from the absence of Soviet communism, the main thing that's different is that more countries possess ballistic missile technology. In the past few years alone, India and Pakistan have set off a combined total of twelve atomic explosions; Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and China have test- launched ballistic missiles; Iraq, Syria, and Libya have reportedly acquired missile components; and both China and Russia have continued to export ballistic missile technology throughout the Middle East. Still, U.S. policymakers have been slow to recognize the danger. As late as 1998, Joint Chiefs Chairman Henry Shelton averred that "the intelligence community can provide the necessary warning" if one of these countries was developing "an icbm threat to the United States." Alas, just a week after Shelton's pronouncement--and with no warning whatsoever from the intelligence community- -North Korea demonstrated its intercontinental ballistic missile (icbm) capability by launching a three-stage rocket over Japan. Intelligence analysts promptly dropped their sanguine assessment of the threat. "The probability that a missile armed with weapons of mass destruction would be used against U.S. forces or interests," a CIA-sponsored study asserted last year, "is higher today than during most of the cold war and will continue to grow."

The logic of the threat is simple. If we take North Korean, Chinese, and Iranian officials at their word, American "hegemony"--and, in particular, America's overwhelming military superiority--represents the single greatest challenge to their security. But, as the Gulf war showed, the United States can't be deterred with conventional forces alone. Ballistic missiles, by contrast, have proved they can do the job. There is, to begin with, the example of the Soviet Union, whose icbm arsenal for decades kept the United States from confronting Soviet forces directly. More recently, North Korea's nuclear and missile programs have enabled that shambles of a country to blackmail the West into showering it with blandishments and concessions. Likewise, senior Pentagon officials say that China's repeated offers to incinerate Los Angeles linger in their calculations over how to respond to a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

Nor have these examples been lost on states rushing to acquire long-range missiles: Their mere possession will put these countries "off limits" for U.S. intervention. "If Americans know that you have a deterrent force capable of hitting the United States, they would not be able to hit you," Muammar Qaddafi declared after the United States bombed Libya. "Consequently, we should build this missile force so that they and others will no longer think about an attack." Indeed, facing a dozen little Soviet Unions with even a theoretical capability of hitting America or her allies, the United States is vastly less likely to pursue a forward-leaning foreign policy. " A cquiring long-range ballistic missiles armed with a weapon of mass destruction probably will enable weaker countries to do three things that they otherwise might not be able to do: deter, constrain, and harm the United States," Robert Walpole, the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1999. If, for instance, Saddam Hussein possessed even one icbm, U.S. forces wouldn't be bombing Iraq routinely or stationing troops nearby. "The idea is to keep us out of an opponent's neighborhood and prevent us from coming to the assistance of our allies--it'll work, too," says a senior administration official.

Hence, when a missile defense opponent like Robert Reich writes in The American Prospect that the Bush team's plan exemplifies an "America-first policy" and "the new insularity," he has things exactly backward. The real argument for missile defense is that we need it to prevent adversaries from deterring us from the kind of interventions that liberals like Reich, even more than conservatives, spent the 1990s championing. Oddly enough, foreign critics, who carp that missile defense will cement U.S. hegemony and make Americans "masters of the world," grasp its rationale better than critics here at home. Missile defense, China's ambassador to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament complained recently, would grant the United States "absolute freedom in using or threatening to use force in international relations." He's right.

The fact that ballistic missiles, as a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate points out, "are not envisioned at the outset as operational weapons of war, but primarily as strategic weapons of deterrence and coercive diplomacy" points to another flaw in the anti-ABM argument. Missile defense opponents argue that long-range missiles (and defenses against them) have become passe since rogue regimes surely intend, as Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger put it in a recent Washington Post op-ed, to deliver "weapons of mass destruction by means far less sophisticated than an icbm: a ship, plane or suitcase." Maybe. But a suitcase makes for much less menacing satellite imagery than an icbm--which is to say, it has virtually no worth as a deterrent, much less any domestic political utility. Besides, if ballistic missiles are yesterday's news, then why are the North Koreans and the Iranians building them in the first place? "How about we get rid of our aircraft carriers and B-52s while we're at it?" scoffs a senior Bush adviser when confronted with the man-in-the-van argument. "You defend against what you can, and to argue that these missile programs aren't threats, or that because there are other threats we should ignore this one, is just silly."

Opponents of missile defense also rely heavily on McNamara-era logic. As Berger puts it, " T he basic logic of the ABM Treaty has not been repealed-- that if either side has a defensive system the other believes can neutralize its offensive capabilities, mutual deterrence is undermined and the world is a less safe place." He's half right. If the United States fields missile defenses, mutual deterrence will indeed be undermined. In fact, it will be entirely one-sided in America's favor. Not only would a credible missile defense system diminish the ability of rogue states to deter the United States, but, because these states have so few missiles, even a limited defense would, if anything, diminish their confidence in their arsenals. Deterrence and missile defense may have been inherently incompatible when the United States faced an adversary armed with 9,000 warheads. But when the point is to deter a group of states that, between them, possess fewer than two dozen icbms, enshrining defenselessness in official policy makes no sense.

The difference between an adversary armed with a single warhead and one armed with 9,000 isn't the only distinction critics like Berger refuse to grasp. They also fail to consider how proliferation undermines cold war deterrence theory. If MAD, as Henry Kissinger has written, was "barely plausible when there was only one nuclear opponent," it's certainly less so today. That's because, in an era of proliferation, the numbers have become much less favorable for the United States. Instead of betting that one adversary will think like Berger, we are now pinning our survival on the hope that six or seven will.

Which brings us to the nature of those adversaries, a subject about which the anti-missile-defense lobby is remarkably sanguine. " E ven fanatical, paranoid regimes are deterred by the prospect of catastrophic consequences," Spurgeon Keeny, then executive director of the Arms Control Association, advised in a 1994 New York Times op-ed. Never mind that recent history is littered with paranoid regimes that forgot to be deterred by catastrophic consequences. Before we send Keeny to hammer out a salt accord with Saddam, his ilk need to explain much more convincingly how missiles transform Third World dictators into rational choice theorists. Writing of "the 'psychological' element in deterrence, on which all else depends," Jonathan Schell, dean of nuclear abolitionists, notes that a leader's "state of mind-- his self-interest, his sanity, his prudence, his self-control, his clear- sightedness--is the real foundation of his country's and everyone else's survival. In short, he must decide that the world he lives in is not one in which aggression pays off." Sanity, prudence, and self-control, needless to say, are not the first qualities that leap to mind when you think of leaders like Saddam and Qaddafi. In any case, you don't have to be paranoid to miss the logic of MAD. Simple miscalculation will do.

Of course, there's more to U.S. foreign policy than relations with Iraq and other rogues. And, sure enough, the contention that missile defense will imperil America's relations with everyone else has become a favorite cliche of the anti-missile-defense chorus. The claim, though, is sheer invention. The Europeans have already rolled over. During his recent visit to the Continent, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brusquely told them that America was going to build an ABM system and there was nothing they could do about it. In the weeks since, officials from the European Union, Britain, Germany, and even France have lined up to declare that the United States has the right to deploy. In fact, serious European resistance has all but collapsed.

Russia, too, has nothing to worry about--and its officials know it. Unlike their predecessors in the 1980s, today's proposed missile defenses, which are being designed to intercept a much smaller number of warheads, pose no threat whatsoever to Moscow's huge arsenal. Indeed, Boris Yeltsin and, just last week, Vladimir Putin have even proposed joining forces with the West to build missile defenses against rogue states. For all their recent bluster, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said on a visit to Moscow last month, " i n the end, the Russians are going to accept it." As for the ABM Treaty, the other signatory--the Soviet Union--no longer exists. And, even when it did, it never paid the treaty much heed. In fact, the Soviets ringed the country with anti-missile systems, which still shield Russia today. That doesn't mean the accord should necessarily be abandoned. But neither should U.S. policymakers grant Russia veto power over America's ability to defend itself against unrelated threats.

As for the suggestion that missile defense will provoke China into what a recent petition by American sinologists described as "negative steps that would undermine American security," it's too late. Those "negative steps"-- including unchecked missile proliferation and an arms buildup--have been under way for over a decade. Indeed, just two weeks ago U.S. bombers had to avoid hitting Chinese personnel working to upgrade Iraq's air defense systems. As the NSC's Joseph wrote recently, "China is modernizing its missile and nuclear arsenal whether or not the United States deploys missile defenses." And members of the Bush team contend privately that China's exports of missile technology and the expansion of its own missile program helped create the imperative for missile defense in the first place. Even so, icbms aren't free, and China has only about 20. Multiplying that arsenal several times over would require huge trade-offs. "If they build up aggressively," argues a senior Bush administration official, "there goes their trade relations with us, their multilateral diplomacy, maybe even their economy."

The decision, in any case, has already been made--first by the Clinton administration and now by the Bush team: The United States is going to build a missile defense system. The question that matters is no longer if but how. Alas, here too the discussion has been a national embarrassment. Even though the systems under review today are limited and based on land and at sea, opponents of missile defense are still railing about what Washington Post hysteric Mary McGrory has revealed as "Bush's grandiose scheme for a real, all-out Star Wars scenario." Meanwhile, the right, too, has shown little interest in debating the competing merits of land- and sea-based missile defenses. Its approach is, instead, faith-based: Build it and it will come.

Within the U.S. government, however, a serious debate is under way. The ground-based option, slated for construction on a desolate Alaskan island, has the momentum. Unfortunately, it has few of the merits. In fact, all it has going for it is the ABM Treaty, which prohibits sea-based national missile defenses. To comply with the accord, the Clinton administration originally planned to erect a missile defense platform in North Dakota. Placing the system there had only one drawback: It offered protection to the continental United States but left parts of Alaska and Hawaii to fend for themselves. Ted Stevens, Alaska's senior senator and, more importantly, the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wasn't going to leave his constituents vulnerable to ballistic missile attack. So he went ballistic himself. By the time he finished, the Clinton White House had decided to relocate the site to Alaska.

The program, though, is a mess. First, it won't work. The problem isn't so much its well-publicized test failures (what failed in the most recent test was 50-year-old rocket technology that even North Korea has mastered) but a combination of flaws inherent in its design. The Alaska program can only intercept missiles well into their flight trajectories--that is, as they close in on the United States at a speed of about 15,000 miles per hour. Hence, the system would have only one shot at an incoming missile. Worse, that shot would likely have to maneuver through a cloud of decoys and countermeasures that icbms can deploy en route. Finally, the Alaska site will function reliably only against missile threats from East Asia. But a missile launched from, say, Iran or Iraq would be coming from the other direction. Given adequate time and resources, American technicians may solve these problems. Yet there's a conceptual defect they can never remedy--namely, that a U.S.-based missile defense amounts to just that. It abandons America's allies to their fates, offering Americans marginal protection but leaving countries like Israel and Japan defenseless.

In truth, few experts champion the Alaska program. One of the reasons derives from the realization--arrived at rather late in the debate--that water covers 70 percent of the Earth's surface. This simple fact has enormous strategic and technical implications. First, it offers a way around the problem of decoys and multiple warheads. Missile interceptors stationed on U. S. ships, which would patrol the coasts of rogue states, could shoot down missiles in their initial boost phase--that is, before they could deploy countermeasures and while their engines were still emitting an easily detectable plume of flame. Trying to destroy a missile as it lifts off, as opposed to when it's about to land on you, makes sense on several counts. Aside from solving the countermeasure dilemma, it's a lot easier to hit. As anyone who has seen a televised space launch knows, rockets travel relatively slowly during their initial ascent--much more slowly than when they streak back to Earth.

Equally important, a sea-based defense would offer the United States more than one opportunity to bring down an incoming missile. And, as physicist Richard Garwin points out, "It is much easier to put a lid on North Korea, a country the size of Mississippi, than it is to put an umbrella over the whole of the United States." If a missile did get through the first line of defense- -or if it was launched from, say, China's vast interior, which no boost-phase interceptor could reach in time--American forces could conceivably have as many shots at it as there were ships stationed along the weapon's trajectory to the United States.

And, unlike a U.S.-based umbrella, a sea-based system wouldn't exclude America's friends. The mere fact that missile defense ships could be deployed to war zones as part of larger naval armadas gives them an immediately recognizable offensive dimension. Like aircraft carriers, such ships could project power in ways no concrete slab in Alaska could. If, as the Bush team insists, the strategic rationale for missile defense really is an internationalist one, then a sea-based system has all the advantages. The Alaska program, by contrast, follows the minimalist logic of Fortress America- -that, as Alaska's Stevens wrote last month, "We can and we must defend our homeland!"

There's also a cost-benefit calculation. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, the total cost of a ground-based program could run $60 billion. By contrast, the Pentagon has put the price tag of a sea-based defense at between $16 billion and $19 billion, while others have put it at half that. To be sure, when the cost of satellite-based sensors is factored into the equation, those projections may end up being too optimistic. Still, a sea-based system would build on an existing program: the Navy's Aegis air defense system, which has already been funded to the tune of $50 billion. And both the Clinton administration and the Pentagon report that one could be built with existing technologies.

What--you thought we were decades, if not centuries, from possessing the know-how to make missile defense work? In truth, NMD technology has matured well beyond what its detractors admit. The United States already fields a theater missile defense system, and current proposals aren't nearly as ambitious as the space-based plans of the Reagan era. In fact, the Clinton administration purposely slowed down the Aegis's interceptor rocket to ensure it would not be usable against icbms and thereby violate the ABM Treaty. And, as boost-phase proponents (and prominent 1980s Star Wars critics) like Garwin and MIT technology Professor Theodore Postol point out, because this type of missile defense system targets rockets while they are still moving slowly and before they can deploy countermeasures, it's far less daunting technically than the Alaska program.

Analysts estimate that, with a new, more powerful missile interceptor and other upgrades to Aegis cruisers, the United States could begin deploying a sea-based defense in about seven or eight years. That's too long for some. President Bush has pledged to construct a system "at the earliest possible date." And a popular consensus has emerged that an Alaska-based defense could be completed more quickly. Several Republican senators, as well as representatives from the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization who have been working for years on the ground-based plan, favor continuing the Clinton program.

Until recently, the Bush team argued otherwise. Rumsfeld's chief of staff, Stephen Cambone, and Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley publicly derided the Clinton program as ineffective. And Joseph, Bush's NSC missile defense point man, wrote that the Alaska program "has become so contrived that it will have only a minimal capability against near-term threats." Even Bush called it "flawed."

But that was then. According to members of the Bush team and senior Pentagon officials, the White House is now considering proceeding with at least an Alaska-based radar system and possibly more. "Sea-based is unquestionably the better option, and we're going to pursue it," says an administration official. "But there's been a lot of work done on Alaska , none done on Aegis, and we may end up doing both. Also, it gives us near-term insurance against North Korea." Two missile defense systems, of course, offer more protection than one. But in practice building anything more than a radar facility in Alaska would exact a high opportunity cost. To begin with, it would divert resources from the more promising system. In return, it would achieve minimal, if any, gains for U.S. security--and none for America's allies.

Equally important, missile defense funding comes from the military budget. But, as it stands, the military is already underfunded by about $30 billion annually, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Exactly how the Bush team would fund not one but two missile defense systems while rebuilding America's conventional forces remains anyone's guess. "There's no free lunch," says Michael Vickers, a military budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "NMD is an unfunded mandate, and you just can't do missile defense and much else at current costs." One solution, of course, would be to boost defense expenditures. But Bush insists there will be no new money for defense this year, and he has proposed a $1.6 trillion tax cut, which ensures there won't be much in the future either.

So where will the money come from? The Bush team says it plans to cut several major weapons programs and streamline the Armed Forces. Alas, the cuts Bush advisers privately suggest won't free up nearly enough money to fund their missile defense proposals, much less pay for their modernization plans. And there's only so much fat they can cut before they start bleeding the military's capacity to fulfill America's global commitments. Absent a substantial hike in defense spending, something has to give. Otherwise, America will have purchased an opportunity to wield its power undeterred at the expense of its actual capacity to do so. Which, needless to say, undermines the entire strategic rationale for missile defense.

Does Bush understand any of this? Probably not. But his advisers certainly do. They've spent years arguing that missile defense should respond to strategic imperatives, not political ones. Yet if they deploy a system whose purpose is to beat the clock rather than the missile threat, they will have done exactly what they've argued against for so long. The result will be a defense that encourages retrenchment while offering no security to our allies and very little to us. And, leftist critiques notwithstanding, that could be worse than none at all.

By Lawrence F. Kaplan