When Less Is More: Steven Weinberg on the Folly of National Missile Defense
Setting aside whether the nation that overwhelmingly dominates the market in weapons of mass destruction should be quite so self-righteous in denying them to others, Bush's declaration raises another question: whether "effective missile defenses" are even remotely feasible. More importantly, does deployment of such a system enhance, or in fact endanger, our "national security"? The question is urgent, because in December, the Bush administration announced its intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in order to pursue and deploy "national missile defense" (NMD).
Despite the current frenzy of enthusiasm for all things military, the decision to scuttle the ABM in return for "missile defense" remains a bad one. Should it be sustained, it will make our world much more dangerous, not less so.
You needn't take the word of a left-wing journalistic pipsqueak on these matters. In the Feb. 14 issue of The New York Review of Books, UT Professor Steven Weinberg comes to the same conclusion. In an article titled "Can Missile Defense Work?" Weinberg describes NMD as a defense that is "aimed at an implausible threat, [with] dubious effectiveness against even that threat, and that on balance would harm our security more than it helps it."
Planning the Wrong War
In 1979, Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in physics, and he has been for many years a defense research consultant, working at one time on the still-unsolved problem of consistently distinguishing decoys from missile warheads. "Like others before me," he writes, "I gradually also became influenced by a powerful argument against deploying any missile defense system: that in the conditions of the times it would simply induce the Soviets to increase their offensive intercontinental missile forces, leaving us worse off than before."
Weinberg makes three strong arguments against missile defense: It is technically impractical if not literally impossible, it devotes scarce resources against the least likely nuclear threat, and it encourages the proliferation of nuclear weapons while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of nuclear catastrophe.
Discussing his article with me last week, Weinberg reiterated, "I'm not against the military; I'm not against defense spending; I'm not against missile defense -- if it would work. But I do think we'd worsen our security with the program that's under question now."
Preoccupied as we currently are with "rogue states" and terrorists, Weinberg argues that there are much cheaper and more likely ways for such enemies to attack, and for which missile defense is no answer. "The other ways are just to bring nuclear weapons on trucks across the border, park them in an underground garage in Manhattan, set them off and you have something that makes Sept. 11 look like an ordinary working day. Or ... you can launch them in a short-range missile from ships offshore, and these short-range missiles are in the hands of many countries -- and national missile defense would have no effect against them. That's not a controversial point, by the way." Such methods would allow the attackers to remain anonymous -- unlike a missile attack, inevitably detected by U.S. satellites. "I can't conceive why anyone, however much they may hate us, would choose to attack us with an indelible return address on the weapon" -- thus inviting nuclear annihilation.
The Real Threats
On the other hand, NMD will have the almost certain effect of persuading the Russians and the Chinese that they cannot diminish their own nuclear arsenals. Both countries, in fact, might perceive a need to increase their stockpiles. U.S. intelligence analyses predict that China would respond by increasing its ICBMs from 20 to 200 (with India and then Pakistan likely following suit). The danger from Russia -- currently armed with about 3,900 warheads -- is much worse. Says Weinberg: "To me, the most serious threat our country faces is not terrorism. The most serious threat our country faces is an accidental or mistaken launch by Russia, of its whole arsenal of missiles. I think it's more true now than it was 10 years ago. Not because they're hostile to us, but because their early warning capabilities have degraded. They're extremely vulnerable: They don't have submarines at sea carrying missiles. All their submarines are tied up in port. They're really vulnerable to an American first strike now. One way you protect yourself, in such a circumstance, is to put your missiles on a hair-trigger launch-on-warning basis. That scares the pants off me."
At least twice that we know of, the Russians have nearly launched a nuclear retaliation by mistake. Should they move to launch-on-warning for fear of a U.S. first strike (real or imaginary), there will be no second chances. "I think this is much more frightening than any kind of terrorism," said Weinberg, "because I can't imagine a terrorist attack from which our country could not recover. We're recovering from Sept. 11. Even if they exploded a nuclear weapon in one of our cities, that city might not recover, but the country would go on. But an attack of 1,000 nuclear warheads on America I think really would destroy us, and that is what gives me nightmares."
Asked if he thought the political forces promoting NMD could be slowed, Weinberg laughed. "Well, I know a lot less about politics than I know about missile defense. I can't really anticipate that, but people do change. We went from -- in the Johnson and Nixon administrations -- there were detailed plans for missile defense systems called Sentinel and then Safeguard, but then suddenly we had an arms control treaty and the whole thing was shelved. That could happen again -- perhaps after the year 2004, or maybe even after the year 2002, when we have a new Congress. But I think as long as Bush is as popular as he is ... it's going to be hard to disagree with him on anything to do with a national defense issue."
Last fall, Weinberg was scheduled to testify on NMD before the Senate Armed Services Committee. After Sept. 11, the hearings were canceled. "Sure it's going to be hard," he concludes. "It's easy for people like me, because nobody's going to elect me to anything anyway. I can write an article in The New York Review of Books and all I collect is a few angry letters. It's very hard for members of Congress or people who want to become members of Congress to fight the president on this issue. But that can change -- and we'll just have to keep at it." n