July 28, 1998

Keeping Enemy Missiles at Bay

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- As one of the nine members of the bipartisan commission that assessed the ballistic missile threat to the United States, I am alarmed that some have interpreted our findings as providing support for a new national missile defense system.

It is true that in our report to Congress two weeks ago we warned of possible near-term threats from short-range, ship-launched ballistic missiles, which could carry biological agents or nuclear weapons, as well as from longer-range ballistic missiles from North Korea, which could strike some of the Hawaiian islands and the Aleutian chain in Alaska. We also saw a potential longer-term threat to some of the contiguous 48 states from biological and nuclear payloads on intercontinental-range missiles launched from North Korea or Iran.

Should Iran or North Korea embark on a well-financed program and make good use of technology and advice from Russia, China and from each other, both these countries could build a few ICBM's within five years. In the case of Iraq, it might take 10 years.

Since these nations operate secretively -- conducting their work underground, at night or under cloud cover to avoid observation by our satellites -- it is possible that we might not learn of a long-range rocket until it was tested. By then, the nation that built it could be only a year or two away from having a few missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Just last week, Iran successfully tested a medium-range missile capable of hitting Israel and Saudi Arabia. All this is cause for concern.

While the commission did not study defending the United States against these missiles, I believe there is no reason that the national missile defense advocated by some in Congress should be built now. No defensive system under consideration can neutralize these threats. The defense that is now being developed would not even detect, let alone counter, ship-launched short-range missiles. Nor could the proposed defense work against ICBM's that employ simple countermeasures.

Missiles that carry biological weapons can be divided into dozens of small bombs, each equipped with its own heat shield against the heat of re-entry. These warheads would be far too numerous to be intercepted by a missile defense.

A nuclear warhead could also escape destruction if it were concealed in a large balloon that inflated once the warhead separated from the rocket; our interceptor would strike a portion of the balloon but miss the warhead. Any team of technicians and engineers with the know-how to build ICBM's could easily build these countermeasures.

The best way to defend against possible attack is to prevent countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq from getting these missiles in the first place. If they obtain them anyway, they will be vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. Above all, they can be deterred from using these weapons by the threat of major destruction in return.

In our concern with these emerging powers, we must remember that the only real threat to our survival comes from Russia, which has thousands of long-range nuclear warheads. We should try to eliminate this arsenal by proposing the third stage in strategic arms reduction to encourage Russia to ratify Start 2 and move on to Start 3.

American security, like that of all other nations, depends on political pressures and constructive diplomacy, imperfect though these tools are. It would be foolhardy to base our security on a 21st-century Maginot Line.

Richard L. Garwin, a physicist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has advised the Government on nuclear issues since 1950.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company