Deal in Missile Defense

Deal in Missile Defense

It fails to bring the country to a safer and saner position on nuclear power.

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The upcoming Bush-Putin mini-summit in Crawford, Texas, is expected to produce the outlines of a new nuclear bargain that combines sharp reductions in US and Russian arsenals with greater freedom for Washington to expand its program of missile defense testing and development without walking away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. While this outcome would be far preferable to a unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM treaty, it still represents a deeply flawed response to the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons.

In the dangerous and unpredictable security environment that has followed in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, the safest course is to seek the deepest possible reductions in US and Russian nuclear forces as a first step toward multilateral nuclear disarmament. Major reductions would also set the stage for a concerted effort to get other nuclear weapons states like France, Britain, China, India and Pakistan to scale back their own arsenals, on the way to the ultimate goal of abolishing these deadly weapons once and for all.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration's fatal attraction to missile defense stands in the way of any such historic breakthrough. As long as the United States has as its stated goal the deployment of a multitiered missile defense system, Russia will be hard pressed to reduce its nuclear arsenal much below 1,500 to 2,000 warheads (the level that will be discussed in Crawford). And China, which currently has only twenty single-warhead missiles that can reach the United States, will be far more inclined to build its number of long-range warheads up to several hundred, if not 1,000 or more. That in turn will spur India and Pakistan to augment their nuclear arsenals, hardly a stabilizing development as they continue to battle over Kashmir and the United States is engaged in a war of uncertain duration in Afghanistan.

This is no way to build a more secure world. Moreover, the Administration is willing to risk provoking a new round of nuclear proliferation in pursuit of a missile defense system that has little prospect of working in the near term, if ever. In the latest in a long line of technical glitches that have plagued the program, tests of both the land- and sea-based elements of the system were recently postponed as a result of equipment and software failures. Yet the system's major contractors were rewarded with a 57 percent funding increase, making the $8.3 billion missile defense allotment the most expensive weapons-program item in the Pentagon budget.

Both Bush and Putin have their own reasons, rooted in domestic and international politics, for cutting some kind of deal now. But the international community has a right to demand that they go beyond a tepid bargain that could institutionalize large nuclear arsenals for years to come and instead seek radical reductions in their current arsenals. We also have an opportunity to pressure Bush and Putin to include de-alerting as part of the new strategic framework. If the United States and Russia are now partners, then preparing for a quick-launch of nuclear missiles at each other makes no sense. To accomplish these ends, the Bush Administration will have to abandon its vain hope of finding a technical fix that will defend against the destructive power of nuclear weapons.

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