The Age
Trigger happy


Thursday 6 July 2000

On Saturday, the Pentagon will launch an interceptor missile from California, which, if all goes to plan, will directly hit a mock warhead 230 kilometres above Earth over the Pacific Ocean. Such precision at 19,300 kilometres an hour is a tough challenge, and previous attempts have either missed the target or succeeded only under the most ideal conditions.

The latest "hit to kill" test has taken on added importance, and if it succeeds - and even if it doesn't - the political momentum in the US is now so strong that some sort of national missile defence, as it is called, is likely to be approved. It sounds like science fiction but the idea is for a protective umbrella over America so that any nuclear missile flung by an enemy state can be shot down before it reaches US shores.

"We hope that the test will be successful," Defence Secretary William Cohen said last week. "But we believe we are very close to having the technology, which is quite demanding - like being able to hit a bullet with a bullet."

To its critics, and they are many, hitting a bullet with a bullet is grand folly, a dangerous American fantasy born of deep insecurity, despite its pre-eminence in the world.

Russia is against it because it would destroy the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty - the Cold War linchpin of arms control, which prohibits a defensive shield.

China is against it, seeing in it an aggressive stance towards China. The European Union is against it, viewing as implausible America's fears of a missile attack and warning of the risks to the delicate nuclear stability in the world.

President Bill Clinton says he will decide in the next few weeks whether to go ahead with nuclear missile defence, with the aim of having the first stage ready by 2005, the year that the CIA estimates some Third World countries will have long-range missile capabilities.

To its supporters (once just Republicans but now joined by Democrats), it is a natural step now that the Cold War, with its uneasy peace through nuclear deterrence, is over. Nobody believes Russia is now a nuclear threat to the US; the argument is that the danger is from small, volatile enemies such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq, which could - theoretically at the moment - launch a missile against an unprotected US.

More broadly, the debate is a continuation of the American dream of impregnability.

"We think of ourselves at this moment as the pre-eminent superpower; it's exactly the moment when we feel most strong, but we also feel the most vulnerable," says John Parachini, an international security expert at the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California. "So what we do in a classic American way, the techno-optimistic way, is to try to dominate using technology to solve all our problems."

The much greater risk, say Parachini and other observers, is that a biological or other weapon would be smuggled into America, not launched over the seas.

The idea of shooting down missiles goes back to president Ronald Reagan's speech in 1983, when he surprised everybody by calling on the scientific community "to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete". "Star Wars" aimed to intercept Russian nuclear weapons, but Reagan never explained how it might be done. The public loved the idea, and still does, but $US60 billion ($A100 billion) later, there is still no reliable interceptor.

The national missile defence plan is more modest than Star Wars but the idea is the same, writes Frances FitzGerald in her new book, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War. In a careful dissection of Reagan's plan, she argues that it reveals that the "extent to which our national discourse about foreign and defence policy is not about reality, or the best intelligence estimates of it, but instead a matter of domestic politics, history and mythology".

The current debate is laden with the imperatives of domestic politics, and fears that a decision could be made in haste for political reasons. Clinton had no time for the idea until the 1996 election grew close, and the Republicans made it an issue. He performed a classic Clinton manoeuvre of pinching a Republican idea and neutralising it politically, promising to develop an anti-missile system.

The proposal was given an enormous boost by a panel headed by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary under president Gerald Ford. The New York Times recently called the subsequent report in 1998 "one of the most influential documents in modern American military planning".

The panel has been criticised for deciding its conclusion before analysing the evidence but, nonetheless, it found that a missile from a so-called "rogue state" was not a distant threat, but an imminent one. It was a time when America was particularly nervous; India and Pakistan were exploding nuclear bombs, and North Korea was developing its own missile program. The report garnered bipartisan support and a seemingly unstoppable momentum.

In this election year, Clinton is reportedly leaning towards an in-principle support that would not breach the anti-ballistic missile treaty just yet, but would leave the hard decisions to the next administration. That would prevent Democratic candidate Al Gore from suffering charges that he is soft on defence, and neutralise it as a presidential issue.

Republican candidate Governor George W. Bush has announced a much more ambitious scheme that would protect not just America's 50 states, but its allies as well. That the allies are mostly opposed to it has been virtually ignored.

"Russia, China, and the NATO allies have become virtual bystanders in this debate," Thomas Graham junior, an arms control specialist, told the New York Times. "The real fight is being waged in Washington, and it is much more about politics than the threat."

The actual "threat" to the US is unclear. The use of the term "rogue states" to describe weak but volatile powers quietly disappeared last month when the State Department announced, with an Orwellian touch, that they would now be known as "states of concern". Clinton has praised the recent warming of relations between North and South Korea, but rejected the suggestion that it should influence America's plans for missile defence.

"They still have a missile program," he said. "And so it's still something that the United States has to be mindful of and to prepare and to deal with."

Even if North Korea did violate the test ban with the US and developed an intercontinental missile, intelligence reports suggest it could develop only two warheads, compared with America's 6000.

Central to US thinking, says Parachini, is that North Korea would be crazy enough to launch a missile on the US: "If the North Koreans were to hit any part of the United States ... there's no question that we would respond, and hit the North Koreans, and turn Pyongyang into a glassy soup."

But Sha Zukang, China's chief arms-control negotiator, says: "A huge superpower and you say you're afraid of tiny little North Korea? "We think that's ridiculous."

It is clear that China thinks missile defence is really aimed at China, and officials have said they would interpret a green light for the scheme as a sign to step up their own nuclear activities. The risk of an arms build-up is serious, say most experts, and some warn the US that it is ignoring world opinion at its peril.

John Steinbruner, a security expert at Maryland University and a national missile defence sceptic, says that even if the anti-ballistic missile treaty is effectively obsolete because the Soviet Union no longer exists, its underlying principle is that parties cannot act without mutual agreement. The rest of the world would not tolerate the US acting unilaterally.

"We may try to start it, but we are not going to be able to complete it," he said. "The issue is how much damage we will do until we get the point."

Original article