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The Bush administration’s recent announcement that it intends to accelerate the development of both national and theater missile defenses has ignited old passions on both sides of a debate that has gone on for nearly three decades.

But, according to a report by STRATFOR, the global intelligence company, this time around both supporters and opponents of the administration’s plan are arguing points that are no longer relevant and, in doing so, are missing the most salient fact: The key issue is no longer stability between opposing strategic nuclear arsenals but, rather, the growing vulnerability of satellite communications and sensor systems to missile attack.

It’s about space, stupid.

There is no way, however, that senior Bush administration aides can fail to be aware of this. After all, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld chaired both a commission on the ballistic missile threat in 1998 and the “Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization” two years later before his nomination to run the Defense Department. Moreover, the White House and State Department are staffed with veteran national security officials who have long served in the nation’s defense and intelligence communities.

The plausible scenario is that the administration actually is using missile defense as a stalking horse for the even more pressing issue of expanding the U.S. military’s power into outer space as a defense against the destruction of our galaxy of military and civilian satellites.

To understand why the wrong issue is being debated, it’s necessary first to point out how both sides are ignoring some profound new realities. To begin with, the political rhetoric on both sides remains obsessed with the issue of the threat posed by masses of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, even though that standoff, for all practical reasons, ended nearly a decade ago.

The roots of the missile defense debate stem from the immediate aftermath of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviets — who had been outnumbered significantly by the United States in the number of strategic nuclear weapons — undertook a massive buildup of their own nuclear forces, seeking and obtaining numerical parity with the United States by the early 1970s.

Once both sides realized they had reached numerical equivalency, the U.S.-Soviet relationship began to turn to maintaining both the nuclear balance and the presumed international stability this would reinforce.

So the dominant theory became strategic deterrence, and the doctrine became Mutually Assured Destruction. Deterrence required, and assumed, that in the event of a first strike by one side, the defending nation would retain enough surviving nuclear weapons capability to devastate the attacker. Under MAD, if both sides knew it was impossible to destroy the other side’s ability to retaliate, neither would regard launching a nuclear strike as a viable military option. For the final two decades of the Cold War, MAD essentially marginalized the strategic nuclear option, allowing the United States and Soviet Union to compete intensely by other, less dangerous means.

While defense planners in the 1950s and 1960s regarded strategic nuclear weapons as a cheaper alternative to massive conventional forces, the dynamics of maintaining strategic deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction became fiendishly expensive, as both superpowers expanded their arsenals to include more than 25,000 deployed tactical and strategic nuclear arsenals apiece. The United States since 1945 had built more than 60,000 warheads configured for 116 different weapon systems, ranging from the backpack-carried Atomic Demolition Munition to the MX Peacekeeper ICBM, at a total cost estimated in 1986 at $750 billion. This included 13 separate designs of ICBMs, defined as having a flight range exceeding 3,000 nautical miles.

The history of arms control shows that as MAD endured, it motivated both sides to move toward negotiations and treaties to manage both the balance and soaring costs of the nuclear standoff.

In this view, an effective missile defense system would destabilize the entire structure of strategic deterrence, MAD and arms control. It created the possibility that a nation with that defensive capability would no longer be deterred from retaliation and might be tempted to consider offensive nuclear operations in a crisis. And the very consideration of researching and deploying missile defenses appeared to be a destabilizing and dangerous maneuver. The next step was to fear that a superpower, believing the other side to be preparing missile defenses, might launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike to prevent its own nuclear arsenal from being neutralized.

To avoid this doomsday scenario, the United States and Soviet Union negotiated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to ban defenses — with the exception of permitting each side to build two limited, fixed sites for ground-launched defensive missiles. Given that neither side at the time had the slightest idea how to build a workable defensive system against the other’s thousands of operational strategic warheads, the ABM Treaty was readily implemented and adhered to for over a decade.

When former President Reagan launched his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, therefore, most of the players in the arms control and diplomatic communities went berserk. The Soviet Union launched a massive, global political campaign against even research on such a system. Our allies, frightened of destabilizing MAD (they liked the idea of the two nuclear superpowers holding guns to one others’ heads), also condemned SDI. Those who argued against SDI continued the original refrain that it would destabilize deterrence and that only full, mutual disarmament could defuse the nuclear standoff.

The question of retaining superpower confidence by promoting a missile defense capability on both sides likewise fell on opponents’ deaf ears.

Their response was that even if SDI had the capability to knock down some missiles, it still remained impossible to destroy all incoming warheads. Assuming that SDI enjoyed an extremely high 90 percent effectiveness rate, this would mean that out of 1,000 incoming warheads, 100 would still hit the United States, a large enough number to devastate the country. Moreover, opponents reasoned that any defenses would cause the Soviets simply to build more missiles so as to saturate the defenses.

The Soviets, for their part, did not want to see the United States even try to construct such a system. They were not nearly as convinced as American critics that a system was technologically impossible, but they had no confidence in their own ability to either design or finance such a system. Even if the United States provided detailed plans and blueprints, Soviet officials feared they could not afford to build a defense system.

In fact, the United States at first was not sure American science could construct a system. But missile defense adherents had a twofold view that kept them from abandoning the effort.

First, they believed MAD was an untenable doctrine over the long run. In the history of warfare, every unstoppable weapon inevitably has generated an impenetrable defense. Accepting the invincibility of ballistic missiles, therefore, is a historically indefensible position. Second, even if the system didn’t work, forcing the Soviets into a technological arms race built around defensive rather than offensive weapons would be inherently beneficial for placing additional pressure on the Soviet economy.

The SDI concept from the 1980s was rendered moot by the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union in 1991. Even though Russia and the other former Soviet republics still held nuclear missiles, they no longer had a political reason to employ them as strategic weapons and MAD became irrelevant.

However, a new threat based on the proliferation of ballistic missile technology and the feared proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear arms, has supplanted the decades-old nemesis of the Soviet adversary: missile-armed “rogue” nations capable of attacking U.S. military forces overseas and, ultimately, the U.S. homeland.

This prospect has emerged gradually through several wars and crises since the 1980s, particularly the “war of the cities” during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, in which both sides attacked with primitive missiles; Operation Desert Storm, when Iraq used Scud missiles against Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states; mainland China’s 1995 demonstration missile tests that bracketed Taiwan; and North Korea’s surprise launch of a multi-stage ICBM over Japanese airspace in 1998. These events revived the idea of smaller-scale missile defense systems to defend against attacks by an opponent armed by handful of missiles.

This was a completely different rationale and a completely different challenge, but it nevertheless has resurrected the old passion of longstanding missile-defense opponents. Unable to wield the argument that missile defense will destabilize the nuclear balance, opponents instead echo their earlier assertions that no system will work and the real threat today is not from incoming missiles but “suitcase” bombs.

For their part, supporters of missile defense today are as vocally as passionate as they were a generation before. But their arguments for protection against rogue states — in pre-supposing a layered defense system costing hundreds of billions of dollars is the only effective strategy — also fail the test of reason.

Given the Pentagon’s current surveillance and sensor capability — and its overwhelming superiority in precision-guided conventional munitions — the most effective and cost-effective approach would be for the United States simply to announce a declared doctrine that it deserves the right to conduct pre-emptive, unilateral military operations against ICBM missile sites that pose a threat to its overseas-based military units or the U.S. homeland.

While Iraq demonstrated during the 1991 Persian Gulf War it had learned Soviet maskirovka deception-and-cover techniques to hide its small force of mobile, short-range Scud missiles from the allied air forces, the same situation does not and will not pertain to emerging ICBM facilities in the current inventory of rogue states. They are simply too large and the support infrastructure too bulky to be made mobile.

Thus, the threat from rogue states can be addressed by subsonic Tomahawk or ALCM cruise missiles, rather than resorting to nuclear weapons or even space-based X-ray lasers, the development and deployment costs of which could swallow the entire Pentagon procurement budget.

Also, the Russians and Chinese are not concerned about missile defenses protecting the U.S. mainland. The United States is not going to attack them, and they are not going to attack the United States. Moreover, China is concerned about Taiwan having a missile defense, but Beijing also knows (a) it can saturate any Taiwanese defense; and (b) the proliferation of missile-defense technology to Taiwan will mean China will be able to steal it that much faster.

But, as always, the truth is less obvious and much simpler. The overarching issue is not missile defense but treaty manipulation.

The United States has become completely dependent upon space for its intelligence and communications capabilities, as well as the wider civilian communications complex. Those assets are very vulnerable. The anti-ABM treaty is not nearly as important as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty — signed by the United States and Soviet Union at the height of Cold War mistrust — that bans the deployment or use of weapons of mass destruction in Earth’s orbit or deep space.

That is the treaty that U.S. officials know must be revised — or even abrogated — if they are to begin concrete plans to defend space-based assets from attack.

If Washington can succeed politically in revising or even abandoning the 1972 ABM Treaty in the near future, the Bush administration then will have successfully set a precedent for the revision of the treaty barring weapons in space.

Thus, domestic opponents of missile defense simply are missing the point, in the same sense that its supporters are sidestepping the real issue.

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