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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
May-August 2001
Volume 54, Number 3-4
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
The Central Deception of National Missile Defense
If Not NMD, Then What?
Sharing Missile Defense
US Government Fails to Lead on Small Arms
US Policy and the BWC Protocol
Intelligence Oversight Faces New Obstacles
Controversy over Wen Ho Lee Persists
FAS Status Report

If Not NMD, Then What?

By Robert Sherman

The threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attack by rogue states or subnational entities cannot be dismissed. While the present Administration undoubtedly errs in treating compounded worst-case analyses as if they describe the probable case, this danger is real.

Prudently, we have to presume that an aggressor would render missile defense irrelevant by driving around it, using clandestine delivery methods. If we accept that unpleasant fact and focus on the problem of clandestine delivery, we are not helpless against it. On the contrary, we have at least three countermeasures available:

Arms control and nonproliferation agreements and policies can help keep weapons and fissile materials out of the wrong hands. The smaller the number of weapons of mass destruction and the scarcer the materials to make them, the lower the probability that the wrong people will acquire them.

It is sometimes argued that nonproliferation and arms control have failed because they have not been completely successful. Despite the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, India and Pakistan have conducted nuclear tests, and Israel and South Africa have deployed nuclear weapons. Shortly after signing the Biological Weapons Convention, the Soviet Union embarked on a massive BW program. And today a handful of rogue states are actively working on biological and chemical weapons, as at least two extremist substate actors have done in the recent past.

But the question is not of how the performance of arms control and nonproliferation compares with perfection. If perfection were the standard, we would never build a weapon, certainly not an NMD that has failed as many tests as it has passed.

The question is of how arms control and nonproliferation compare with the only real-world alternative, which is their absence.

Forty years ago it was generally predicted that the turn of the millennium would see at least thirty nuclear weapon states. Today there are six to eight. South Africa has destroyed all its nuclear weapons. Brazil and Argentina turned back from the nuclear-weapons brink at the eleventh hour. Russia is, albeit erratically, destroying its chemical and biological weapons complexes. If it were not for arms control and nonproliferation initiatives, none of these things would be happening. Weapons of mass destruction would be accepted as normal methods of warfare, as chemical weapons were accepted in the first World War. There is no getting around the fact that arms control and nonproliferation have made the world safer.

Deterrence. Against ballistic missiles or other traceable threats, the primary answer isn't complicated. Deterrence by threat of intolerable retaliation is to international relations what the queen plus two rooks are to chess. Deterrence is old hat and it's not pretty, but it works against foes great and small. The end of the Cold War has not changed that fact.

Deterrence need not and should not mean a threat of massive nuclear destruction of civilians. On the contrary, it is most credible when it does not require nuclear weapons at all, and does not threaten great loss of innocent life. Consider that Saddam Hussein had the ability to use chemical weapons not only against our forces, but against any American city he chose. He was stopped not by Patriot defensive missiles, but by then-Secretary of State James Baker's pointed non-nuclear warning to his Iraqi counterpart:

If the conflict starts, God forbid, and chemical or biological weapons are used against our forces, the American people would demand revenge, and we have the means to implement this. This is not a threat, but a pledge that if there is any use of such weapons, our objective would not be only the liberation of Kuwait, but also the toppling of the present regime. Any person who is responsible for the use of these weapons would be held accountable in the future.

Rogue governments are, in almost all cases, dictatorships in a state of physical conflict with the people of the country they rule. These governments exist of themselves, by themselves, and for themselves. Baker correctly recognized that to threaten nuclear retaliation against large numbers of Iraqi citizens would not only be morally and politically unacceptable; it would also be of no great concern to Saddam Hussein who himself kills substantial numbers of Iraqis to maintain his hold on power. Baker exercised effective deterrence by focusing it on the only things Saddam and his colleagues cared about: their own existences and their access to wealth and power.

The same is true of the North Korean and Chinese leadership. For all their aggressive posturing, they lead lives of comfort and power and will place neither their positions nor their persons at risk.

It is sometimes asserted that there are "undeterrables" _ those so consumed by religiosity and fanatic hatred that they fear nothing. If a person is willing to strap a bomb to his body, what threat could possibly be meaningful to him?

Perhaps none. But it is not the suicide bombers who need deterring. It is his leaders, those who organize, finance, train, and motivate the suicide bombers but who never volunteer to carry the bombs themselves and who are fully deterrable.

The most difficult threat will not be leaders who are identified but cannot be deterred _ it is doubtful that such exist or will exist. It will be leaders who order anonymous attacks and cannot be identified or traced.

Intelligence and interception are the best tools _ possibly the only tools _ for dealing with anonymous attacks.

The history of interception is a mixed bag. Timothy McVeigh and the World Trade Center bombers were not intercepted until their damage had been done. But more recently, the terrorists who planned to bomb Los Angeles Airport on New Years Day 1999 were caught as they crossed from Canada into Washington State with their bomb material.

Identifying and intercepting terrorists will never be easy, nor will it ever be a sure thing. But it can certainly be done better if it has greater resources available _ resources the present Administration now plans to dissipate on NMD.