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Debate: US National Missile Defence

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Should the US continue with the National Missile Defense System? Should it now be deployed?

Background and context

The history of missile defence can be traced back to the second world war. The active superpower competition in missile defence was constrained by the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty (1972), but President Reagan re-injected funding and momentum into the US programme with his ‘Star Wars’ Strategic Defence Initiative. In 1996, NMD was designated a Major Defense Acquisition Program. Under this program, the Department of Defense was tasked with developing a deployable system within three years from culmination in 2000. However, instead of making a deployment decision, President Clinton deferred to his successor in the White House. Against much international protest the administration of President G. W. Bush decided to abrogate the ABM Treaty in 2001 and to pursue an active policy of national missile defence (NMD). The deployment decision now rests with President George W. Bush amid bitter ideological debates. The current Bush administration argues that NMD is urgent, and the Pentagon has launched an intensive program to rush deployment. The appeal of NMD is seductive: rather than rely on massively destructive nuclear deterrence, the possessor of a NMD system can shoot the missiles of its enemies out of the sky. It is, however, fraught with controversy of both a technical (will it ever work?) and a geopolitical (will it spark a new arms race?) nature.

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Argument #1

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Yes

NMD is a superior defence to the traditional approach of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which as its acronym implies, was a ridiculous way to manage nuclear tension. NMD can offer real protection of the US mainland, not just the threat of posthumous retaliation. It is surely the responsibility of the US government to pursue a policy that can defend US cities against nuclear attacks?

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No

The doctrine of MAD may have an unfortunate acronym but it worked successfully for fifty years. To discard a strategy that has worked for half a century in order to adopt an unproven, highly expensive scheme that has an extremely dubious record in experimental testing seems absurd. The decision to pursue NMD owes more to vested financial interests than strategic thinking.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The US needs to defend itself against rogue missile attacks. MAD might have worked against the Soviet Union but the smaller, less predictable and less controlled missile threat of rogue states such as Iran and, especially, North Korea demand last ditch defences. The risk of accidental, unauthorised or actively authorised launches from these states is real; we must protect mainland USA from this threat.

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No

North Korea is just as aware of its own mortality as was the Soviet Union. It would be suicide to attack the USA. Moreover, no ‘rogue state’ yet possesses the capability to reach the mainland US with a ballistic missile. We should channel our energies and resources into preventing proliferation and the development of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles rather than pursuing vastly expensive and questionably useful projects like NMD.

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Argument #3

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Yes

A fully functioning NMD system will confer a genuine and well-placed sense of security upon the USA. The strategic security provided by NMD and, as importantly, the perception of this security, can encourage the US to begin dismantling its nuclear arsenal. In turn, other states will be persuaded to dismantle their own arsenals. Thus, NMD can actually lead to the end of the nuclear arms race.

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No

The Bush administration has no intention to dismantle its existing nuclear arsenal. Indeed, in a recent Nuclear Posture Review the Pentagon advocated NMD as part of a strategic triad involving varieties of new nuclear weapons. Far from encouraging nuclear disarmament NMD will create a global arms race. The perception that the US can shoot down missiles will cause Russia, China and the rogue states to dramatically increase their nuclear arsenals. The aim will be to overwhelm the NMD system with sheer numbers of warheads.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The upgrade in the Chinese nuclear arsenal would have occurred regardless of whether the US pursued NMD because the Chinese deterrent was out-dated and insufficient for its task. Furthermore, the US programme of NMD makes use of ground-breaking new technologies such as lasers. These lasers, perhaps in the near future mounted on satellites, will revolutionise warfare. A more precise and discriminating weapon than a nuclear warhead, an attack laser could in the future make warfare much more humane and much less likely to end in huge civilian casualties. NMD must be seen as part of a long-term military programme to revolutionise warfare.

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No

The US pursuit of NMD does indeed slot into a wider intention to ‘revolutionise’ warfare, in particular by seeking the weaponisation of space. Far from being a humane or attractive development this would create a new arms race in space. Moreover, the US commitment to such a strategy can undermine diplomacy in related areas. Other arms control agreements could stall if China refuses to sign without a firm US commitment not to weaponise space. Quite apart from the very real questions of whether laser-satellites could actually work, and whether they justify the immense expense needed to develop them, there are thus practical geopolitical consequences of a policy which pursues revolutionary weapons.

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Argument #5

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Yes

There should be no doubt that missile defence is technically feasible, even if all the technology is not yet in place. Even the perception that the US may be able to defeat a missile strike is still a valuable deterrent to hostile nations and their leaders. And it is still states which pose the greatest threat to US and global security, as they alone have the capability to support and sustain the hugely expensive programmes necessary to produce effective long-range weapons. Even if Al-Qaeda once had this capability, it is now too disrupted, denied a safe territorial base, to pose an existential threat to our security.

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No

There is no evidence that missile defence is technically feasible; recent tests have largely been failures, even though they have not even tried to simulate the real challenges of intercepting a missile in real time. "Hitting a bullet with a bullet" leaves no margin for error. As there are good reasons for thinking that the programme will never work, we should not waste vast amounts of taxpayers money on trying to lull ourselves into a complacent state of false security. If rogue states think there is a good chance that our system will not work, then it will provide no deterrent effect. In any case, the realistic threat to US mainland security is not a rogue regime with a ballistic missile, but a terrorist group with a dirty or chemical bomb, delivered by hand to the middle of a crowded city. NMD will do nothing against such a theat.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Our greatest near-term potential attackers, Iran and North Korea, are expected to be able to produce a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States at some point in the next few years. Regardless of time estimates, these hostile nations are sure to acquire such capabilities. Given such a threat, the only alternative to deploying National Missile Defence systems would be pre-emptive military intervention against these regimes. This would not only lead to an international outcry, following the catastrophic situation in Iraq, it would also be very risky to attack a potentially nuclear-armed opponent. NMD is a clearly preferable strategic option; US possession of it may even deter these hostile states from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place.

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No

A National Missile Defence would not protect the United States from rogue-states. For example, a NMD could not work against ship-launched missiles; it is far easier for rogue states to attack the U.S. with a short-range nuclear weapon carried by a short-range ballistic missile from the deck of a ship than with an ICBM. Nor could a NMD prevent the launching of biological or chemical weapons, in which the warhead can be readily divided into small bomblets that would be released from the missile early in flight. Not only would these numerous targets overwhelm a NMD, but there is a more effective was to disperse such weapons. NMD would also fail because real-world targets will not cooperate. If the United States deploys a NMD it must expect that any country willing to expend the resources to build or buy long-range missiles to deliver an attack would also make sure it had ways to penetrate the defense.

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