By Angelo M. Codevilla
Posted May 5, 2001
This article appeared in the Wednesday, May 9th, 2001 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
President Bush's decision to walk away from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, while reducing U.S. nuclear forces as he thinks best, removes a major obstacle to missile defense and augurs the end of arms control as a plank of U.S. policy. Yet before America can have a missile defense the Bush administration must fix the mess of missile-defense programs run for years by managers who sought arms control more than defense.
The administration must also make room within a Pentagon that is ignorant of, and opposed to, missile defense, for some entity with the incentive to create and operate the needed devices. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's proposal yesterday for an overhaul of the Pentagon's space programs, including a new post for an Air Force general to oversee them, may be a good start.
But opposition will come from a politically liberal subculture in American universities, think tanks, and the U.S. government that now risks irrelevance. It is significant that in the broadcast commentaries that followed the president's recent speech, people like MIT's Theodore Postol, who have made careers of opposing missile defense, denied being opposed to missile defense or even being arms controllers. Rather, they stressed their official relationships with U.S. programs and argued that missile defense is just not feasible.
In a sense, they are correct. If the administration bases its plans on existing missile-defense programs (as shaped by eight years of malevolent mismanagement), if it does not understand the many ways in which the assumptions of arms controllers have made these programs the weak things they are today, and if it simply entrusts them, and more money, to the same people and organizations, the legacy of arms control will continue to deprive America of missile defense.
The ABM legacy that weighs heaviest on the effectiveness of interceptors based on the ground or at sea is that, as of now, the interceptors must receive target maps and battle-
management directions from surface-based radars and computers. Our low-orbit network of heat-sensing satellites is now planned merely to augment such arrangements. This makes for gross inefficiency. All surface-based information and battle-management systems can begin to work only when they first see warheads coming over the horizon. But by the time this happens, there is too little time to intercept fast warheads as far enough away as we would like.
Moreover, such arrangements require that the homing mechanism that guides the interceptors also be able to discriminate between warheads and decoys. Homing devices are inherently unsuited for this. As long as we stick with this way of doing things, we will be trying to make homing devices smarter than they can be, and we will be making certain satellites dumber than they could and should be.
The efficient way to use interceptors based on land or at sea is to feed them target maps and battle management directly from our planned network of low-orbit, heat-sensing satellites. But to do that, they must be equipped with software and communication packages different from the ones now planned.
The legacy of arms control has also deformed our programs for using lasers to intercept missiles during boost phase, as they rise from their launchers. The Clinton administration's favorite program involves putting a laser gun on Boeing 747 aircraft and flying them near suspected missile-launch sites, waiting for the missiles to go up. The technical difficulties of creating vacuums for each shot, stabilizing the device, and trying to push the beam through unpredictable atmospheric conditions are horrid. The thought of perpetual air patrol stations over or near hostile countries is silly. But the arms controllers love the airborne laser not because of what it can do badly, but because of what it cannot do at all, namely reach into Russia or China. Will the Bush administration know better?
The only other U.S. program for boost-phase defense, the Space Based Laser (SBL), has been the arms controllers' No. 1 bete noire precisely because it would effectively strike missiles originating anywhere. President Clinton included a specific ban on this weapon in his 1997 attempt to expand the ABM Treaty. Because the SBL had long since met all technical requirements and was ready for flight demonstration, the Clinton administration recycled it into research, where it has been loaded with new requirements and delayed until 2013. Any effort to rescue the SBL would have to proceed from knowledge of technical booby traps laid, and of technical opportunities forgone.
Not least of the legacies of the ABM Treaty is the Pentagon bureaucracy's lack of seriousness about missile defense. The services cannot accommodate missile defense within themselves. For almost half a century, all have sought pieces of the mission primarily to keep money from going to other services.
With the partial exception of the Army in the late 1960s, the services have seen missile defense as an alien, money-sucking body threatening to grow within themselves, and missile-defense money as a pot from which to draw for other purposes.
The Reagan administration established a unit within the Pentagon, since renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), to do research on missile defense. But the BMDO cannot turn itself into the builder of U.S. missile defense because its personnel are assigned by, and loyal to, the services rather than to the mission. Building a missile defense is going to take something like Adm. Hyman Rickover's nuclear navy program — still resented by the Navy a half century afterward — or some unit that begins within one of the services and evolves into a separate service, or a brand new unit directly under the secretary of defense.
Mr. Rumsfeld's announcement of a revitalized Air Force Space Command opens the possibility of such a unit. From its inception in 1984, Space Command's mission has included controlling space — meaning defending U.S. satellites, attacking enemy satellites, and preventing enemy weapons from transiting space. Logically that includes stopping ballistic missiles, which must fly through space.
But Space Command has never had any weapon for doing such things. Both national policy and its status as the junior command in its service prevented it from even asking for such weapons. It so happens that some of the weapons necessary for space control, notably the SBL, would also be excellent for missile defense. If Mr. Rumsfeld were to order this command to develop the weapons it needs for its mission, give it direct access to top civilian officials, as well as a future beyond the Air Force, missile defense might just happen.
So President Bush has effectively renounced the ABM Treaty. Now let's see if his administration can deliver America from its legacy.
Note: The Bush Administration gave its six month notice of withdraw from the ABM Treaty in December of 2001.