Vague Notions: Bush's Missile Defense

At the close of the G8 meeting of industrialized nations in Genoa, Bush and Russian president Putin stood in a hot stuffy ornately decorated room in the 16th Century Palazzo Doria Spinola and held a news conference. With the future of the world potentially at stake, Bush was not about to violate his dress code, and left his sport coat on despite sweat beading on his upper lip. "Kinda hot," he remarked to reporters. News headlines heralded an "agreement," although Mr. Putin said the announcement on linking offensive and defensive weapons was "unexpected". The agreement was perhaps all the more unexpected, coming as it did only three days after Bush admitted he had only "vague notions" of what the missile defense plan would actually entail.

A test of the missile system on July 14 succeeded in intercepting its target, but the system that was supposed to confirm that the warhead had been destroyed froze when it was unable to process the large amount of data created by debris from the collision. "The system locked up, like your computer at home," said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Rick Lehner. "It was too much work to track all the debris." While the Pentagon tried to minimize the failure, critics described it as much more significant than the administration was willing to admit. The critics noted that it offered adversaries a potential means of defeating the system, by introducing many small scraps of metal, called "chaff" Joseph Cirincione, a senior associated at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commented, "This underscores the unreality of these tests, how carefully choreographed they are for success. They work only as long as everything goes exactly according to plan." Former director of testing for the Pentagon Philip E. Coyle III said that a similar malfunction during a real attack might lead the U.S. military to continue firing at a target that had actually been destroyed. He cited the failure as evidence that software problems are likely to increase as tests grow more complex, reducing the likelihood of delivering a workable system on the administration's schedule.

The technical uncertainties compounded diplomatic issues as Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on July 19. Admitting that the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty prohibits the U.S. from even testing a system, much less deploying it, Bush characterized Blair's position -- "Therein lies part of the dilemma for the prime minister.... What do you want me to support? What are you proposing?" Blair avoided specific comments on the missile system, choosing instead to praise Bush for consulting his allies.

Today Putin was not ready to discuss details, either. "We're not ready at this time to talk about threshold limits or the numbers themselves," he said, "But a joint striving exists." After Bush's last European visit Putin said the U.S. had not adequately explained why it would violate the ABM treaty, which was intended to limit the nuclear arms race. At that time he told a gathering of U.S. reporters that if the U.S. abrogated the treaty, Russia would invalidate all other arms agreements, and upgrade its nuclear arsenal by fitting existing missiles with multiple warheads. When asked today about his earlier statements, Putin would say only that "We might not ever need to look at that option, but it's one of our options."

Putin's tentative and well-hedged support is understandable in the context of what The Economist has described as a U.S. ultimatum to Russia: "... negotiate some new regime or else see [the ABM] treaty, and with it all hope of privileged strategic relations with America, tossed in the dustbin." Unilateral deployment of a missile defense system by the U.S. could force Russia and China closer -- a possibility underscored this week by a strategic partnership agreement between the two nations. Observers described the potential of this alliance as "a deadly combination ... Russia's know-how and China's assertiveness."

But because it is a democracy and leader of democracies, the U.S. will have to convince the public that junking the ABM treaty actually improves security. This is likely to be a problematic argument. Even if a defensive missile shield could be achieved technically, which is still unclear, it does not follow that the ABM treaty must be abrogated "within months." The administration's insistence so far on this point lends credence to the speculation that scrapping the treaty is, in fact, not so much so that the missile defense system can be tested, but rather an end unto itself. And it supports the claims of detractors that what the administration is really after is not a limited facility, such as could protect, for instance, Los Angeles, but rather a so-called "astrodome" that would shield the whole country. The latter, in the words of The Economist "would threaten the entire structure of arms control that, whatever its shortcomings, is still the world's best hope of containing the most dangerous weapons."


"Bush, Putin agree to link missile shield with nukes" Associated Press 22 Jul. 2001

Fournier, Ron "Bush: Anti-Missile Plan a Hard Sell" Associated Press 19 Jul. 2001

Sobieraj, Sandra "Bush, Putin agree to link missile defense, reducing nuclear stockpiles" Associated Press 22 Jul. 2001.

"What are they really for? George Bush needs to come clean about his missile-defence ambitions" The Economist 19 Jul. 2001

Dao, James "Missile Interception Test Was Hit-and-Miss, Pentagon Reports" NY Times 19 Jul. 2001