In this analysis originally published in the Saturday, Dec. 29, 2007, Topeka Capital-Journal, CDI Research Analyst Victoria Samson CDI Research Analyst Victoria Samson examines how recent events in North Korea and Iran may cause the United States to rethink its missile defense strategy.
The original article from the Dec. 29, 2007, Topeka Capital-Journal can be found here. It is also reproduced below.
Star Wars — still no good reason for it
By Victoria Samson
The United States is hustling to get missile defense out in the field as quickly as possible, citing the immediate threat of missiles from two countries in particular: North Korea and Iran. Recent events have overtaken this push for action and have shown that there are more feasible alternatives available.
While its infrastructure is incomplete and its test record uncertain (a 50 percent success rate), the missile defense system designed to defend the United States against an extremely limited long-range ballistic missile attack is still being rapidly fielded. The two deployment sites for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors are in Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
The primary justification for the GMD program has been the specter of a North Korean missile that could reach the United States with a nuclear warhead. No such missile exists, nor is expected for some time to come, if ever. North Korea does have a military nuclear program, as demonstrated by its October 2006 test of a nuclear weapon, and as a result has maintained its spot on President George W. Bush's axis of evil.
But the Six-Party Talks being held on this issue are finally starting to pan out. North Korea has signed an agreement committing it to abandon its nuclear weapons program, and this past fall, has started work on dismantling its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. This does not mean that North Korea has become a fully responsible member of the international community, but it does indicate that the so-called "rogue state" can respond to international diplomatic measures, something that missile defense supporters thought couldn't happen.
The other threat often cited to validate the need for the GMD system is merely theoretical: an Iranian long-range missile that could reach the United States or its European allies with a nuclear warhead. In fact, the United States feels so strongly about this that it is putting a lot of its diplomatic weight behind getting Poland and the Czech Republic to respectively agree to host 10 interceptors and a radar that could defend against Iranian missiles. This past fall, the rhetoric about the Iranian threat was extremely heated, to the point where Mr. Bush hyperbolically warned of "World War III" if Iran were permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Iran definitely has questionable intentions regarding its civilian nuclear reactors which must be clarified. However, the pressing need to immediately get some sort of missile defense in the ground in Europe seems to be more political in nature than anything else. The latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, which represents the work of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, stated that it believed Iran had stopped work on its nuclear weapons program back in 2003. It is still enriching nuclear material, and it is possible that it deliberately stopped research on nuclear weapons until it had sufficient fissile materials. Yet the NIE points out that while they "judge with moderate confidence" that the earliest Iran could theoretically get sufficient material would be late 2009, most believe "with moderate confidence" that it will be "sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame," if not later.
Perhaps most telling is the NIE's finding that Iran's decision to stop work on its nuclear weapons program was "primarily in response to international pressure." This does not give Iran the all-clear signal, but it indicates that diplomatic and political efforts can work.
The most important thing to take away from these two examples is that there is no one single action that can ensure the United States' national security. We can see, however, that missile defense in neither case has provoked the hoped-for response. Often, it is portrayed in a binary way: either you have missile defense and (theoretically) are defended, or you have nothing and are left vulnerable. This is not the case. There are many different options to explore when developing U.S. national security, and we would be foolish to put all of our hopes in one that has done nothing for us.
Victoria Samson is a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that focuses on military and security issues. For more information, visit www.cdi.org.