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President Bush’s national missile defense plan may take a decade to fully implement, but it took Russia less than one presidential term to undermine it. The Russian military announced last week that it successfully tested a hypersonic missile capable of actively evading present—and future—missile defense systems. And, although the network of radar stations and interceptor missiles Bush envisions was never supposed to defend against a Russian attack, this development nonetheless underscores how wasteful and counterproductive America’s nascent missile defense system is.
Establishing a national ballistic missile shield has always been a case study in futility. The technology required to fire decoys—multiple warheads on one rocket that can hopelessly confuse interceptor missiles—is all too easy for a rogue state or terrorist group to employ but difficult for the United States to defend against, even after spending the $100 billion that the Congressional Budget Office predicts the shield will cost. (Of course, estimates such as these also usually fall woefully short of the final cost.) And now, with Russia’s new missile technology—which a rogue state could acquire through theft or bribery from Russia’s decrepit military infrastructure—hitting the right missile will get even harder because incoming missiles will be able to change direction mid-flight to avoid a U.S. interceptor.
As distressing as Russia’s new hypersonic missile may be, its development was rather predictable. Bush’s unilateral decision in December 2001 to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty with Russia set the stage for a miniature arms race. The ABM treaty existed to maintain the long-standing, effective principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD). MAD, however, requires that the each country accept some level of vulnerability—and with Bush refusing to do so, Russia felt compelled to develop systems capable of penetrating present and future U.S. defenses.
But national missile defense doesn’t just miss the mark when it comes to relatively sophisticated attacks from other countries. It also does nothing to combat America’s twenty-first-century threats. We have argued—since long before September 2001—that the billions of dollars squandered on a second Star Wars plan could be better spent shoring up defenses from actual terrorist threats than from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Sept. 11, 2001 showed that even a well-funded terrorist organization such as al Qaeda found it much more practical to attack the U.S. cheaply than with expensive ICBMs. With the U.S. military undersupplied in Iraq, the Department of Homeland Security not fully funded and this year’s federal budget likely to be almost half a trillion dollars in the red, the $9 billion Bush wants to spend on missile defense next year should go to real anti-terrorism efforts.
As President Bush prepared to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein last year, he encountered an international community that did not trust him or his intentions. The trouble he had persuading the United Nations to endorse an attack was caused, in part, by his repeated attacks on essential international agreements, from opposing the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto protocol to imposing illegal steel tariffs. The irresponsible decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty and pursue missile defense two years ago was but one stitch in Bush’s pattern of offending the rest of the world in pursuit of some dubious objective. And now that the U.S. is out of the ABM treaty and Russia has responded, the only thing America has gained from missile defense is a deeper deficit. Bush should abandon missile defense now and focus on worthy priorities.
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