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Update anti-missile program

The most disturbing -- and overlooked -- conclusion to be drawn from the Cox report on Chinese espionage is that China now has the technical information to build missiles capable of overwhelming the Clinton administration's proposed national missile defense.

The White House will not decide until June of next year whether to field such a program. But the deployment timetable is now largely irrelevant because the administration's ground-based missile interceptors would be vulnerable to Chinese countermeasures from Day 1.Beijing currently has two dozen single-warhead, intercontinental-range weapons, 13 of which are believed to be targeted at U.S. cities. But China is expected to exploit the theft of sophisticated U.S. nuclear-warhead designs to enhance its submarine and mobile missile programs. China likely will develop missiles capable of delivering multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles and penetration aids such as decoys. In other words, China has the potential to become a nuclear superpower.

China also has a record of spreading missile technology to the Third World, including states such as North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Last August, North Korea test-fired a three-stage rocket, the Taepo Dong-1, which struck deep in the Pacific Ocean. Now Pyongyang is preparing to test the Taepo Dong-2, which has the potential to reach Alaska, Hawaii and possibly Los Angeles.

The Clinton administration's missile defense plan will be inadequate to meet emerging missile threats, whether from China, North Korea or any other state. The effort to build one, possibly two, ground-based sites would be far more costly and less effective than sea- and space-based alternatives. A ground-based system would have a narrow window of time to intercept missiles tipped with multiple warheads and decoys that have separated from their rocket boosters. Even if the intercept were successful, deadly fallout from a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon would occur.

To counter this threat, the United States should develop defenses to identify, track and shoot down hostile missiles shortly after liftoff, when they are most vulnerable to interceptors and before they can release their payload. By developing this "boost-phase" intercept capability, the United States will offset the ability of China, or any other country, to endanger Americans with ballistic missiles.

Sea- and space-based defenses hold the greatest promise for achieving a "boost-phase" intercept capability. The United States should begin by upgrading the anti-missile capability of the Navy's Aegis defense system, first deployed over a decade ago to protect the U.S. fleet. Taking advantage of the inherent mobility of sea power, Aegis cruisers could patrol international waters off China and destroy missiles in their boost phase. Eventually, the United States could reinforce its sea-based defenses with space-based interceptors.

The United States could begin developing a robust defense along these lines. But despite the weekend agreement between President Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to take another look at the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, it has been the White House's belief that the United States remains legally bound by the treaty, which limits missile defenses to one fixed site. Some legal scholars and strategists have long believed that the treaty is no longer binding because neither Russia nor any other combination of successor states can fulfill its original purposes.

Congress should ensure that efforts to develop sea- and space-based systems capable of protecting the United States from missile attacks are not constrained by the ABM Treaty. They should require the Defense Department to develop and test a more robust version of the Aegis-based Navy theater-wide anti-missile system. The target missile should have the flight characteristics of real-world intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as those being developed by China.

U.S. anti-missile technologies are improving. Now let's begin work on a national missile defense capable of protecting the United States from the threats the Cox report has disclosed.

James H. Anderson is a defense policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.