President Clinton has agreed reluctantly not to veto the National Defense Act of 1999, which calls for deployment of a ballistic missile defense "as soon as is technologically possible." But the White House is working behind the scenes to ensure that missile defense won't be "technologically possible" for at least a decade. Congress needs to stop celebrating a hollow victory and call the president's bluff.
What's behind the president's apparent switch? A number of recent developments have rendered the administration's longstanding public opposition to the idea of missile defense politically untenable.
North Korea launched a three-stage ballistic missile over Japan last August that landed just short of Alaska. This embarrassed the administration, whose National Intelligence Estimate of 1996 predicted that North Korea would be incapable of striking the U.S. for 10 to 15 years. But the report excluded Alaska (the repository of 25% of U.S. oil reserves) and Hawaii from its calculations.
The incident followed by only two months the report of the bipartisan Rumsfeld Commission, which found that the missile threat to the United States by rogue nations is imminent. And the Central Intelligence Agency confirmed in September that China has 13 intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at U.S. soil, each capable of destroying a major city. (China's current Dong Feng 31 missile, with a range of 4,960 miles, has a major strike capability only against west-coast targets. Its next generation of ICBMs, the DF 41 and DF 5A, will be able to strike anywhere in the U.S.)
And, of course, the current investigation into Chinese penetration of the nuclear research laboratory at Los Alamos, along with the investigation by Congress's Cox Committee into technology transfers from the U.S. to China for economic and political reasons, indicates China's seriousness about achieving military parity or even superiority to the United States.
In the wake of these developments, Defense Secretary William Cohen signaled a shift in administration policy on January 21, proposing that $6.6 billion be put toward the deployment of a limited missile defense by 2005. But Cohen's announcement was quickly contradicted by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 24 that the "ABM Treaty is still the cornerstone of our strategic relationship with Russia." The terms of that 27-year-old treaty with the now-defunct Soviet Union prohibits the U.S. from building a national missile defense.
In short, the administration is talking with two tongues. Which one is telling the truth? In this case, it's important to look past the public proclamations. Which brings us to the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS-Low for short.
SBIRS-Low is a proposed constellation of 24 satellites that will employ infrared technology to pick up the heat signature of ballistic missiles upon their launch, track these missiles throughout their flight, and transmit data to whatever land- or sea-based anti-missile system the U.S decides to deploy.
SBIRS-Low is the heart of any U.S. missile defense system, from the simplest — such as using our current fleet of Navy Aegis cruisers to launch anti-missile interceptors — to the most advanced space-based lasers. This includes any theater defense we could deploy to defend our troops abroad or our allies such as Taiwan and Japan. Even the missile defense system Israel is building depends for its success on SBIRS-Low. Without SBIRS-Low, the only missile-detection and tracking system currently being researched, any other advances in missile-defense technology will be worthless.
On February 4, just two weeks after Secretary Cohen's announcement of a pro-missile defense policy, the Air Force cancelled its contracts with TRW Inc. and the Boeing Corp. for two SBIRS-Low demonstration projects. The reason for these cancellations, according to Aviation Week and Space Technology, was to "avoid cost-and-schedule impacts on the SBIRS-Low constellation."
But this is nonsense. In fact, Boeing and TRW will be paid the lion's share of the contracts anyway, including the portion that covered the cancelled demonstration projects. And even prior to canceling the contracts, the Air Force moved back the proposed launch date for any part of the main SBIRS-Low constellation from 2004 to 2006. The excuse was that there was too much "technical risk" involved in launching at the earlier date. But how, one wonders, does the Air Force plan to avoid "technical risk" without demonstration projects?
Right now, any further contracts for research and development of the SBIRS-Low program have been put on hold. And this looks more than anything like the tactic the Clinton administration will use to block missile defense surreptitiously, while publicly embracing missile defense to defuse it as a political issue.
The U.S. should certainly strengthen the security of its nuclear research labs and improve the safeguards for its weapons-related technology. It is folly to think that even these measures can prevent China and other nations from threatening our national security in the near future. The only effective deterrent is to develop urgently a national missile defense. But based on the principle of "watch what we do, not what we say," the White House has no intention of doing this.
We can be certain our allies have noticed this lack of resolve. As if to prod our policymakers with a dose of reality, Japan's defense agency published a statement on February 16, just after the cancellation of the SBIRS-Low contracts, on North Korea's capability to launch a missile at the western United States. No doubt our adversaries have noticed, too.
In lieu of sharing in the false sense of security brought on by this week's announcement that President Clinton will sign the National Defense Act, Congress should take notice as well and demand that the administration keep its word, starting with a reversal of its policy on SBIRS-Low.
Note: The Bush Administration gave its six month notice of withdraw from the ABM Treaty in December of 2001.