The New York Times OpEd Page
January 24, 1997

What Will Prevent a Missile Attack?


WASHINGTON -- Most Americans believe that the United States can protect itself from ballistic missile attacks.

Yet the truth is that we are completely defenseless against limited nuclear attacks from rogue states like North Korea and Iraq and from accidental launches by any country with nuclear weapons.

Though our long-term goal should be a defense against possible full-scale nuclear assaults, what the country needs now is a system to guard against limited attacks. Fortunately, a proposal in the Senate calls for deployment of a missile defense system by 2003 that can protect us in this way and be augmented over time in case more sophisticated ballistic missiles pose a threat.

We cannot afford to gamble that all heads of state will be responsible. During the Cuban missile crisis, Fidel Castro urged nuclear attacks on the United States; Nikita Khrushchev vetoed the idea. Had Saddam Hussein possessed a nuclear weapon with intercontinental range, he may have been tempted to use it during the gulf war.

Iraq as well as North Korea are developing nuclear arms and ballistic missiles that will be able to reach the United States.

Luckily, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty allows us to deal with limited attacks and accidental launches. Under the treaty, the United States and Russia may deploy 100 antiballistic missiles. Russia has already exercised its option and has 100 modern ABM's deployed around Moscow. But we have done nothing.

A year ago, Congress told the Pentagon to study ways to counter a limited missile threat. Each of the armed services has a proposed system, and each system has particular advantages and disadvantages.

The Navy's plan, which would cost an estimated $4 billion, would deploy a missile defense system on Aegis cruisers. The advantage is that these cruisers already exist.

The problem is that using this kind of missile defense system in a strategic role would violate the ABM treaty.

The Army's proposal is to develop a new antiballistic missile and deploy 20 to 100 of them at Grand Forks, N.D. This system, which would cost $5 billion to $8 billion, would take four to six years to set up. The advantage is that it could be expanded to counter larger nuclear attacks.

The Air Force proposes using Minuteman missiles that are supposed to be retired under Start I. This system could be deployed in half the time and at half the cost of the Army's. The main problem is that the Russians will undoubtedly contend that such a system violates the ABM treaty. But the Air Force can make a compelling case that it does not.

The Air Force system -- the quickest and cheapest option, even if it is only an interim solution -- is the one to pursue. Meanwhile, all three services should continue research and development for a system that can protect us from more severe threats.

It is worth recalling the words of William S. Cohen, the new Secretary of Defense, in August 1995.

"We cannot face our constituents in good conscience and say: 'Sorry we failed to take any measures to protect,' " he said.

Accordingly, Congress should support the bill calling for a missile defense system. And the Clinton Administration must urge the Pentagon to speed up its study, so that it can make a recommendation by the middle of the year.

Moreover, we should immediately begin investing in a limited missile defense system. One percent of the defense budget would finance the Air Force's proposed system and a comprehensive research and development program. That is cheap insurance.

Edward L. Rowny, a former ambassador, was an arms negotiator in the Reagan and Bush Administrations.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company