National Missile Defense System

Noam Chomsky

The American Prospect, July 18, 2000

Following the dramatic failure of the proposed national missile defense system’s recent test, the Senate rejected a proposal that would prohibit the Pentagon from deploying the system until it could prove it would work. Now that the Clinton Administration has the go-ahead, an impassioned debate has erupted over whether it should build the defense system or scrap the whole thing. The American Prospect asks the experts:

Taking into account the results of the recent test, should President Clinton ask the Pentagon to go ahead with the national missile defense system?

I would prefer to respond to a slight reformulation of the question. The most hopeful prospect for the NMD [National Missile Defense], I think, is that the tests fail; and very clearly, because in the domain of nuclear strategy, appearance is likely to be interpreted as reality, for familiar reasons. If a system is developed that seems feasible, China will respond by strengthening its deterrent, which will impel India to do the same, and Pakistan, and . . .

According to press reports, a new National Intelligence Estimate predicts that NMD deployment will trigger buildup of nuclear-armed missiles by China, India, and Pakistan, with a further spread into the Middle East. Russia will assume that such a system can be quickly upgraded and will therefore also regard it as a first-strike threat. As many have observed, Russia’s “only rational response to the NMD system would be to maintain, and strengthen, the existing Russian nuclear force” (Michael Byers), undermining hopes for nuclear disarmament.

The president of the Stimson Center, Michael Krepon, comments that the difference between Russian and U.S. stockpiles is so great that “the Russians are looking at a U.S. breakout level” and will be likely to react accordingly. U.S. negotiators have encouraged Russia to adopt a launch-on-warning strategy to alleviate their concerns and to induce them to accept the NMD and revision of the ABM treaty, a proposal that is “pretty bizarre,” one expert commented, because “we know their warning system is full of holes” (John Steinbruner). At the UN [United Nations] conference on the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in May, there was broad condemnation of the NMD on the grounds that it would undermine decades of arms control agreements and provoke a new weapons race.

The threat to the United States, and the world, seems clear and intolerably high. Global concerns are not alleviated by other U.S. stands. Last November the United States blocked a UN General Assembly resolution opposing space-based weapons. It passed 138-0, with the United States and Israel alone abstaining. It was recently announced that the United States is renovating more than 6,000 nuclear warheads, almost double what it is allowed to deploy under Start II, rejecting Russian initiatives to reduce the number of warheads to 1,500 in future talks. Currently the United States maintains a launch-on-warning posture with the option of first-strike even against nonnuclear states that have signed the NPT.

Other recent decisions are also surely regarded as ominous in most of the world: for example, resumption of tritium production using civilian facilities for the first time, breaching the barrier between civilian and military use — another blow to the NPT. Few, including allies, take seriously the alleged concern about “rogue states.” Canadian military planners advised last November that the goal of the NMD is “arguably more in order to preserve U.S./NATO freedom of action than because U.S. really fears North Korean or Iranian threat,” according to briefing documents obtained under Canada’s Access to Information Act. The best hope for the world seems to me unambiguous test failure.