CAMBRIDGE, MASS. AND SAN DIEGO
Donald Rumsfeld, the new Defense secretary, has captured the imagination of the press and the public with his vision of national missile defense.
If Mr. Rumsfeld accepts existing Pentagon guidelines, a decision to build or not to build missile defense could come as early as March. Since this will be an extremely important decision by a young administration, the time to debate it is now.
Missile defense has two basic problems: It can't do what it is supposed to do, and it creates the very threats to American national security it is supposed to resolve.
Why won't missile defense work? As a technical matter, it is enormously easier to send a missile up into the air than to destroy a missile coming down from the sky. No known technology could protect Americans from a missile attack. Every test so far has been rigged; even so, nearly every test has been a failure. Physicists largely agree that the technology to build effective national missile defense does not exist. (See the December 2000 issue of Physics Today, or the website of the American Physical Society, www.aps.org.)
Let's assume we were able to hit a missile coming down from the sky, which we are not. Any state that wished to defeat our system could build cheap countermeasures. Just as it will always be easier to send a missile into the sky than to shoot it down from the ground, it will always be cheaper to build countermeasures than it will be to improve missile defense. Against basic physics even the most expensive government programs are powerless.
The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on missile defense would create a false sense of security regarding the very real threat of international terrorism. Missile defense isn't designed to protect Americans from terrorist attacks by means other than ballistic missiles, and ballistic missiles aren't a likely terrorist weapon. The costly attempt to build missile defense diverts resources and attention from prosaic policies that would reduce our vulnerability to attacks by biological, chemical, or nuclear agents.