Count on Rumsfeld, Not the Missile Shield

New York Times
December 30, 2000


Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary (again) could be good news for the nation as well as for the armed forces. In 1998, I served as one of nine members of the now-famous panel he headed the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. More than 30 full days of meetings gave me the opportunity to assess Don Rumsfeld as a man of great energy, fairness and effectiveness.

Mr. Rumsfeld's years of experience in government and industry will serve him well in the job of organizing his resources and insisting on a quality operation at the Defense Department. He also knows how to get the budget the State Department and the intelligence community need to contribute to national security.

I also expect that Mr. Rumsfeld will be an informed decision maker when it comes to a national missile defense, one who will advocate such a system only if it will be effective. Recent press reports that the Rumsfeld commission findings supported deployment of a national missile defense system are misleading. In our unanimous report, we stated that an intercontinental ballistic missile threat to the United States could emerge from North Korea or Iran within five years not that it would emerge.

We also cautioned that it would be easier and faster for one of these nations to develop short-range ballistic missiles or cruise missiles that could pose a threat to America's coastal cities. Armed with anthrax or another biological agent, or with nuclear warheads, such missiles would be a more potent threat than would a few ICBM's. As we on the commission noted, anthrax could be loaded into hundreds of bomblets rather than into a single large missile warhead. Released from an ICBM on the way up, the bomblets would spread to cover a large city by the time they arrived at their targets. Such an attack could kill more people in a target city than could a first-generation nuclear weapon.

The Rumsfeld commission did not have the duty or the time to look at whether America could defend itself effectively against any missiles long-range or short-range launched by these hostile nations. But I have testified before Congress that the national missile defense under development will not be able to counter disease-producing bomblets released on ascent. What's more, the means do not yet exist for dealing with a threatening nation's countermeasures to an American national missile defense, such as decoy balloons accompanying a nuclear warhead enclosed in a similar balloon. Such countermeasures are within the capability of a state that can develop ICBM's and nuclear weapons.

To deal with such countermeasures, the Defense Department run by Mr. Rumsfeld or not must consider something other than the national missile defense under development. One possibility would be a system to intercept a missile during the first four to five minutes of flight, before it reached a speed that would carry it to its target. Such a boost-phase defense against the leading emerging missile state North Korea could be initiated from a joint base in Russia just north of North Korea, with some interceptors also based on United States military cargo ships or commercial floating drilling platforms hundreds of miles from the Korean coast. (In June, President Vladimir Putin of Russia expressed a willingness to help the United States counter a North Korean ICBM threat.)

As for the threat from short-range missiles identified by the Rumsfeld commission, the new defense secretary should not abandon deterrence in the form of the certainty of our retaliation to counter such a threat, in favor of a national missile defense that would be ineffective against missiles of either long or short range.

A national missile defense system is just one of the options that must be analyzed clearly, so that timely decisions and persuasive programs can benefit our national security. I am certain that Donald Rumsfeld has the stuff to make this happen.Richard L. Garwin is a senior fellow in science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations.