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Star Wars

U.S. Scientists Urge Against Missile Defense System
Reuters, April 11, 2000

A panel of prominent U.S. scientists on Tuesday opposed plans for a national anti-missile shield, entering a fierce public debate before President Clinton decides whether to deploy the system this summer. The 11 scientists, some of whom have worked in government missile programs, said the proposed system, in which a land-based missile would intercept an incoming missile carrying a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon, would not work. "Any country capable of deploying a long-range missile would also be able to deploy countermeasures that would defeat the planned National Missile Defense system," their report said, adding, "It makes no sense to begin deployment." The report, written under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program, said attackers could use decoys and other means to deceive the heat-seeking anti-missiles.

It said biological or chemical weapons could be split into a number of small warheads which would be released during the missile's flight and avoid destruction. Nuclear warheads could be protected by being enclosed in cooler shrouds or could be placed in balloons with numerous empty balloons deployedwith them, making it impossible for the U.S. missile to select the right target. "Deployment of the planned NMD system would offer the United States very little, if any, protection against limited ballistic missile attacks, while increasing the risks from other more likely and more dangerous threats to U.S. national security," it said.

"This so-called national missile defense system won't do the job," said the chairman of the group, Andrew Sessler, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a former president of the American Physical Society. Pushed by the Republican-led Congress, Clinton has said he will decide by the end of this summer whether to commit to deploying the system, meant to defend against accidental or "rogue" firings rather than a full-out attack from Russia. Its deployment would require adjustments to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, a basic element in the web of international arms control agreements. Such changes are strongly resisted by Russia and most other countries. The principle of U.S. nuclear weapons policy up to now has been that of deterrence, that any power would be deterred from using a nuclear weapons because it would provoke an enormously destructive nuclear response.

Proponents of the NMD system, a scaled down version of the "Star Wars" concept proposed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, insist that some form of defense is essential as "rogue" states like North Korea and Iran develop long-range missiles. The conservative Heritage Foundation released a paper on Tuesday saying Clinton must resist those who oppose deployment on the grounds that the issue is too politically charged in an election year and because there has been insufficient testing. Researcher Baker Spring argued that the technology had been shown to be effective in earlier tests and in tests of other anti-missile systems like the Patriot PAC-3, although even NMD backers agree much still has to be worked out.

The Pentagon estimated last week that the system including an anti-missile base, upgrading radars and deploying 100 interceptors, would cost at least $30.2 billion. That figure, far higher than previous estimates, would cover the cost of the program from 1991 to 2026 when all 100 proposed interceptors could be mounted at a base likely to be built in Alaska. The military will conduct its third test of the system in late June when it attempts to shoot down a dummy warhead high over the Pacific Ocean. The first such test was successful in October 1999, but a second test failed earlier this year. Shortly after a third test flight in June, Clinton is expected to decide whether to begin soon building a base in Alaska and deploying 20 interceptors there by 2005. White House national security advisers say he does not intend to leave the decision to a successor. His decision will be based on an assessment of whether the project is technologically feasible, on its cost and on its impact on international affairs. The government has already determined the national security threat justifies it.