Missile Defence: Deployment is not inevitable

Tasneem Jamal

Briefing 01-1

The new administration of US President George W. Bush is coming into office with a strong commitment to deploying a “robust” National Missile Defense (NMD) system. Such a system would have major, potentially very damaging, implications for global security, provoking dangerous reactions in Russia and China, undermining or destroying important arms control agreements, blocking vital safety initiatives such as the de-alerting of nuclear forces, and even raising the possibility of a new nuclear arms race.

Many missile defence proponents argue that deployment of an NMD system is now inevitable and countries like Canada should forget their concerns and simply adjust themselves to the new reality. But it is far too early to consider deployment a foregone conclusion. In fact, there are good reasons to conclude that NMD can be stopped.

The Bush administration has not yet determined the details of the NMD system it would like to see deployed, but on several occasions during and since the campaign Bush and his advisors have made it clear that they envisage a much larger system than the one proposed by the Clinton administration, probably including sea-based and even space-based components. Any move in the direction of a larger system, however, is likely to generate substantially greater opposition than that faced by the Clinton administration proposal. This and a number of other factors make it probable that opposition to NMD will grow both in the United States and around the world over the next several years, and that the momentum NMD now seems to enjoy will decline correspondingly.

International opposition

Even the comparatively limited Clinton administration NMD plan faced opposition from Russia, China, and many other countries, including most US allies. It is possible that Russia would eventually have swallowed its concerns about the Clinton system and cut a deal accepting NMD deployment, but no such deal is likely if the Bush administration proceeds with a significantly enlarged system. (Russia may be more inclined to seek a deal now than it was during the Clinton years, but only if the agreement includes strict limits on the size and type of system the US could deploy; the Bush administration seems unlikely to accept such limits.)

The US can deploy an NMD system without Russian acquiescence, of course, but the costs to arms control and nuclear stability would be likely to be much higher, and thus the costs to US relations with allies, as well as Russia and China, would also be much higher.

Congressional opposition

The new Congress is very closely balanced between Democrats and Republicans, and it is not a given that President Bush, a Republican, will be able to convince the Democrats to support a significantly enlarged system. The extensive Democratic support for missile defence evident during the last Congress was based, at least in part, on the limited nature of the Clinton proposal and on a perceived need to protect a Democratic President from Republican attacks on the issue. Many Democrats do support NMD deployment, but opposition to NMD is likely to be much more in evidence during the coming session than in the last. If control over Congress passes to the Democrats – a possibility in as little as two years’ time – it will further reduce the likelihood of congressional support for a hardline position.

No public demand

Polls consistently show that the US public does not place a high priority on NMD and is not willing to support it at the cost of destroying arms control. Major newspapers, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and the Detroit Free Press, have written editorials opposing missile defence or counselling a cautious, go-slow approach. Any attempt to expand the scope of the plan can be expected to further undermine support among the general public, which will in turn provide additional ammunition to opponents in Congress and elsewhere.


An enlarged NMD system would entail substantially increased costs. The Clinton plan was estimated to cost roughly $60 billion; depending on its ultimate scope, the Bush plan could easily cost well over $100 billion. While this would serve to boost support for NMD deployment among prospective contractors, it would undermine it among the general public, as well as those elements of the Pentagon and the related congressional and industry interests that would face cutbacks as budget resources were transferred to missile defence.

Time factors

The scope and schedule of the Bush administration’s NMD plan have yet to be determined, but the expected major revamp of the plan is almost certain to introduce delays into a program that already had fallen well behind its initial schedule. Once Bush and his advisors have defined the broad elements of their preferred NMD system (probably in the next few months), the administration could approach the issue in one of two ways.

It might choose to approve immediate deployment of the major components of the Clinton NMD system, while authorizing further development of additional, probably sea- or space-based, components to supplement it. This approach might see an initial deployment decision made within the next several months, with initial deployment completed in 2006 or 2007.

Alternatively, the administration might choose to delay a deployment decision until development of the broad range of technologies it would use in its more robust NMD system had reached a relatively advanced state. This approach would permit the US to assess the technological feasibility of key elements of the system before committing to its deployment. Such an approach probably would delay a deployment decision by several years, however –  particularly if the system included more exotic technologies such as space-based components.

A significant delay would provide valuable time for opposition to gel, undermine the aura of inevitability that now surrounds the program, and provide greater opportunity for alternative policies, such as a missile deal with North Korea, to bear fruit. (A deal with North Korea wouldn’t eliminate the desire of hardline NMD proponents to deploy a system, but it would further reduce support for deployment among the general public.) Even in the case of an early decision to proceed with the Clinton plan, no NMD capability would be operational until well after the 2004 presidential election. There would still be time for a different president to reverse the decision, if so inclined.

Post-campaign second thoughts

Finally, there is the possibility of post-campaign second thoughts. It is not unusual for presidents to find themselves moderating the bold positions they took as candidates once they enter office. Some members of Bush’s Cabinet, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, are “true believers” in missile defense who can be expected to promote a hardline position. But others, notably Secretary of State Colin Powell, may be less convinced. As a member of Bush’s administration, Powell has, of course, made statements in support of missile defence deployment. But he has also spoken of the need to take time, determine whether the technology really works, deal with other countries’ concerns, and assess the true state of the “threat.” It remains to be seen how hardline the Bush administration’s ultimate position will be.

Public opposition

None of this means that missile defence deployment will not be affected by public response. If the opponents of missile defence were to go silent, it would certainly be a lot easier for President Bush to ignore all of the factors that mitigate against deployment and press ahead. On the other hand, prominent public and expert opposition will add weight to those mitigating factors.

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