James K. Galbraith

The Immoral Imperative of Missile Defense


Since Ronald Reagan announced Star Wars in 1983, missile defense has come to dominate the evolution of strategic thinking. For the leaders of the nuclear establishment, the propaganda value of this has been immense; it has let them escape the stigma of Dr. Strangelove.

The American debate over missile defense has accepted this–so much so that Donald Rumsfeld now describes the pursuit of missile defense as a “moral imperative.”

But in fact, missile defenses in all forms are drastically destabilizing, easily defeated, and globally dangerous whether the system works or not.

Put simply, national missile defense is:

1. A diplomatic disaster. Deployment of national missile defense requires abrogation of the 1972 ABM treaty. The administration claims to regard this treaty as a “Cold War relic,” but it is the foundation of the entire structure of strategic arms control. Without the ABM treaty, neither Russia nor China can feel secure in their deterrent capabilities, and neither will comfortably adhere to their longstanding restraint in nuclear offensive weapons. Our allies in Europe recognize these dangers, and for this reason they oppose U.S. NMD.

2. A technological dead end. As defense, national missile defense will not work, for the simple reason that it is too easily defeated by decoys and by attacks on the “eyes” of the system. The fact that the technology has not matured after forty years of effort is clear evidence of this. It only took six years to go from the discovery of uranium fission all the way to the detonation of an atomic bomb; only one test showed that the implosion bomb would work. National missile defense has been tested repeatedly. There is no sign that the fundamental difficulties of making it work under combat conditions can be overcome.

3. A budget sink-hole. Missile defense is impossibly expensive. Standard estimates of $60 billion for a working system overlook two important facts. First, many scores of billions have already been spent on the system, with little to show. Second, all military development programs cost much more than is budgeted for them at the outset. Cost is particularly open-ended for high-urgency programs whose technological difficulties remain unresolved. Such programs are, of course, an invitation to misrepresentation and fraud; and important accusations of this have already been made against NMD.

4. A strategic threat. The administration claims that national missile defense is really targeted against the threat of a rogue state or an accidental missile launch. The obvious fallacy is that no “rogue state” would target the United States with a ballistic missile, when simpler, cheaper, effective, untraceable means of delivery of a small atomic terror weapon are available. The accidental launch argument, on the other hand, concedes that Russian and Chinese missiles are the real targets. But the risk of accidents could be eliminated by de-alerting Russian missiles (China’s are not on high alert now), as well as our own–de-alerting which is only possible without missile defense.

The fact that NMD cannot defend us calls attention to the only way in which NMD might work: as an adjunct to an American first strike that destroys most enemy forces (and everything else) on the ground. Following a first strike, a limited missile defense might then shoot down the handful of surviving retaliatory missiles–thus completing the carnage. This point is clear to both Russia and China, who long ago concluded that NMD extends long-standing American strike-first plans–by which they have felt threatened for fifty years. They will respond, as both have warned, by increasing the numbers of their own missiles, and by placing their forces on a higher alert.

National Missile Defense is, in short, an unlimited budget drain aimed at a deeply immoral objective: the nuclear blackmail of other states. It repudiates diplomacy. It puts hair-trigger systems back onto forward stations. It signals, and reflects, contempt for the interests, concerns and perspectives of allied powers. It is a highway back to the days when thermonuclear death threatened from one minute to the next; in any form, it threatens the fragile stability of the nuclear peace.

As the United States government now announces its irrevocable commitment to this program, it is past time for the world’s great anti-nuclear communities to wake up to the danger.

James K. Galbraith is Chairman of Economists Allied for Arms Reduction, www.ecaar.org. This piece is adapted from an essay in the ECAAR newsletter