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Sunday
Jun012008

Missile threat - not worth the bet

The late 1980s was a turning point in global security: Worldwide defense spending peaked, along with the number of men under arms and arms sales.

During these last great years of the Cold War, the Pentagon spent an average of $4 billion dollars annually on missile defense.

That level of spending continued throughout the 1990s only to double in the Bush-Cheney administration. As leading missile expert Joseph Cirincione notes in the current issue of Foreign Policy, President Bush's current budget request would elevate missile defense spending to roughly $12 billion, "or nearly three times what the United States spent on antimissile systems during any year of the Cold War."

On that basis alone, you'd have to suspect that America faces a far greater missile threat today than it did in the late 1980s - as in, more missiles, better missiles, and higher probability of attacks.

Yet none of these conditions is true, as Cirincione points out.

In 1987, the total number of long-range missiles held by potentially hostile nations stood at over 3,000. Today, that number stands at less than a thousand. The security situation for our Asian and European allies has improved far more - an 80 percent drop.

So basically we're talking about a tripling of spending while the threat has decreased by more than two-thirds. If Bush-Cheney have their way, America will spend $60 billion dollars over the next half-decade, while the Army and Marines continue to make do largely with supplemental funds from Congress, having already used up about half their equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So why this big push? Is it resurgent Russia?

According to the Bush administration, the answer is no. This White House has gone out of its way to reassure Vladimir Putin that our plans to install missile defense assets in Eastern Europe are solely focused on the threat from Iran.

The only problem with that theory is dreaming up scenarios in which Iran launches a strategic war against Europe. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has spoken famously about wiping Israel off the map and never tires of taunting America - but nuking Poland? Does that sound like $10 billion of defense spending to you or a boondoggle?

And, if we fear that Tehran will pass nuclear technology to terrorists, experts agree that any attempted strike would involve a device smuggled into a Western state, not one slapped onto some missile of dubious quality. So yes, it makes sense to get smarter and better at scanning cargo, but scanning horizons for that one ballistic missile? That strikes me as a fool's errand.

Nukes are a 20th-century phenomenon. The truly catastrophic threats we're likely to face most frequently in the 21st century are biological weapons. With climate change shifting global agricultural production just as worldwide demand for more resource-intensive foods skyrockets, I'm betting we'll soon be moving organic materials around this planet at rates that stagger the imagination.

Wouldn't it make more sense to spend $60 billion on protecting those incredibly vulnerable supply chains? The word from the intelligence community is that al-Qaida looks into such possibilities with real vigor.

Meanwhile, Iran, according to Cirincione, fails to improve upon the badly designed North Korean missiles it bought more than a generation ago. Again, are we looking forward or backward on technological challenges posed by our enemies?

Outside of short-range Scud missiles, the U.S. military has never shown any ability to shoot down ballistic missiles, despite spending well over $100 billion dollars and a quarter century trying. Ronald Reagan reduced the Soviet missile threat with negotiations, not missile defense. He dismantled the Warsaw Pact by denying it an enemy it could no longer afford.

At the rate we're going in this long war against radical extremism, you have to wonder if we're not being set up for the same unimaginative fall.

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