These are strange days for supporters of national missile defense. After years of resisting any defensive deployments, the Clinton Administration has acknowledged the need for some protection against rogue-state missiles. However, the range of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans over how missile defense should be pursued is so great that it’s not clear progress toward fielding a system is possible.
The real issue is not whether a workable system can be built. It’s what the consequences of deploying such a system would be. Some Democrats argue that defensive deployments would spur adversaries to buy more or better nuclear missiles as a way of overwhelming defenses. The end result might be an arms race that left the U.S. less secure. Republicans tend to dismiss this reasoning, but they can’t prove it’s wrong. Why wouldn’t China build more missiles to preserve its deterrent?
That isn’t a concern when countering rogue states, which have limited capacity to expand their nuclear forces. But in the case of China or Russia, it could be a problem. There seems to be only one way out of this dilemma: it has to be cheaper to build more defenses than more offenses. As long as the cost of expanding the destructive power of offensive forces is a fraction of the cost required to expand defenses, adversaries will have an incentive to build more missiles. Unfortunately, most of the defensive systems being developed cost a lot per shot, so the cost advantage remains with the offense. What to do?
One answer may lie in the Airborne Laser (ABL), part of the administration’s theater-missile defense program. The ABL program is integrating a precise, lethal laser with a Boeing 747 to produce a highly mobile missile-defense system. It’s designed to intercept missiles in their initial “boost” phase over enemy territory before they can release multiple warheads and decoys. The Air Force plans to test a prototype against live missiles in 2003. As the chart below shows, the program is on schedule and within budget.
Because ABL uses a beam of light to destroy enemy missiles, it only costs $2000 per shot. Each plane carries enough fuel for 20 shots. That is a huge cost advantage over the offense, the kind of advantage that would discourage aggressors from engaging in an arms race. ABL isn’t part of the national missile- defense program, but it looks like the most promising defensive system under development. The next administration should think through the full range of missions to which this remarkable system might be applied.
Find Archived Articles: