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'Defend America Act' Is Not the Right Nuclear Defense

While the Republican leadership in Congress says it wants to reduce the threat of nuclear missiles to the United States, the so-called Defend America Act would actually increase it. The question is not, "Do we want to defend?" Of course we do. The real questions are: defend against what threats? What threats do we create in the process and at what price? What resources do we deny ourselves for other threats that may be more real?

This isn't just Bob Dole and Speaker Gingrich versus President Clinton. It is Dole-Gingrich versus the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That's why General Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, stated this view of the Defend America Act: "Efforts which suggest changes to or withdrawal from the ABM Treaty may jeopardize Russian ratification of START II and ... could prompt Russia to withdraw from START I. I am concerned that failure of either START initiative will result in Russian retention of hundreds or even thousands more nuclear weapons, thereby increasing both the costs and risks we may face."

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At best, the Dole-Gingrich crash program would only counter a handful of foreign missiles - fewer than the number contained on a single Russian submarine. Alternatively, some 50 Russian submarines and their missiles would be eliminated if the START I and II treaties were implemented. It's clear which approach is more reliable and cost-effective.

The Dole-Gingrich legislation would threaten numerous international security efforts besides START. The "Cooperative Threat Reduction" program, which helps secure, store, and dismantle former Soviet nuclear warheads, would be put at risk. Negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to outlaw all nuclear weapon tests and help prevent the development of new nuclear weapons would be derailed. Russian ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention could be sidelined, so instead of eliminating the world's largest stockpile of chemical weapons, Russia could leave it in place.

The Dole-Gingrich missile-defense bill could relegate other important cooperative security arrangements with Russia to the scrap heap. We have built a significant level of trust and confidence between our two militaries. The US Defense Department views Russia as a partner in cooperative security. No American or Russian nuclear missile is targeted on the other's soil. If an accidental launch occurred (a remote possibility), the missiles would land in the open ocean. Russian soldiers are now serving under US command in Bosnia. If we threaten to unilaterally violate the ABM Treaty, as the Defend America Act does, it could well play into the hands of those Russians who would wish to return to a hostile relationship.

By committing to build a system by 2003, the Defend America Act also locks in the least-capable technology. According to the Pentagon, the result would be a very "thin" system. Why commit to such technology prematurely when the threat may demand better technology? Our intelligence agencies estimate that no new countries will build missiles able to reach the continental US for 15 years. The risk of a missile launched against the US is already drastically deterred by the guarantee of prompt and devastating retaliation.

The Pentagon can take the time to get the technology right in case we need to deploy. The Defense Department's sensible missile-defense program, called the "3 plus 3" plan, develops our missile-defense technology to permit a deployment decision in three years if necessary, and deployment three years thereafter if a threat warrants it.

Look at the price tag. The Defend America Act says, in essence, "build a system by 2003, whatever the cost." When asked about the cost, former Senator Dole admitted ignorance. The CBO has estimated that purchasing the system could cost up to $60 billion. Sticker shock will be greater after factoring in the cost of operating and maintaining the system.

If we pour money into premature missile defenses, resources will be lacking for other defense efforts that improve our security. To deal with security threats to the US, we must exercise cooperative threat reduction, nonproliferation, and arms-control efforts. We must also maintain conventional military forces sufficient to dissuade any nation from using weapons of mass destruction.

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The possibility of terrorists acquiring and using nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons or their materials is real. It may be no harder to smuggle nuclear materials or weapons into the US than to smuggle drugs, and very few efforts are under way to halt this deadly enterprise. Fewer than 20 pounds of plutonium could make a bomb that would destroy a small city. That 20 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium could easily and safely be carried in a briefcase, entering the US by boat, aircraft, car, train, or even by mail.

Our strategy to secure the US against weapons of mass destruction demands balance. Supporters of the Dole-Gingrich legislation are looking backward at a nonexistent Soviet Union instead of looking forward to meet the real, emerging threats to our national security.

* Carl Levin (D) of Michigan is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.