America's Maginot Line?

Missile System's Best Defense is Public Opinion ... Sort Of

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  1/28/2001

Top scientific groups and 50 Nobel Prize-winning scientists call it "premature, wasteful, and dangerous." A highly classified intelligence report warns it could provoke China to expand its nuclear arsenal tenfold and prompt Russia to add warheads to its ballistic missiles. And initial tests of the $60 billion system have for the most part flopped.

Nevertheless, a national missile defense system is likely to be under construction by year's end.

Those who doubt that needed only to listen to the words Friday of newly-sworn Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Although he declined to put a date on deployment, he said that President Bush's overall intentions are crystal clear: "He intends to deploy." And the White House will do so despite objections from Russia and other countries.

Expect the move sooner rather than later. A new Pentagon timetable requires Bush to decide by March whether to authorize initial construction on a powerful radar station in Alaska. If he chooses to delay his decision, the ultimate deployment of a missile defense system would face slowdowns that Republicans have warned against for years.

Given the system's high price and acknowledged flaws - including last summer's failed test - one might think the president will pay a political price for proceeding with construction. But that presumption ignores one critical fact: A majority of voters are squarely behind it.

Why? The answer, analysts say, includes the dwindling relevance of the country's oceanic moats, buffers that have long provided a national sense of immunity to invasion; widespread ignorance of the system's details and its political implications; the nation's nearly religious faith in technology; and the way pollsters ask questions.

"There has always been a longing to escape the horrors of the missile age," says Edward Linenthal, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh and author of a critical book about the system called "Symbolic Defense." "Missile defense has a wonderful prolife message," he says. " 'It's better to kill missiles than people.' "

From the invention of ironclad warships during the Civil War to the atomic bomb in World War II to the smart bombs and cruise missiles used last year in Kosovo, the United States has repeatedly mesmerized the world with its ability to field the most technologically sophisticated weapons.

Those dazzling engineering achievements have infected Americans with the notion that the country's technological might can overcome any barrier. Whatever the project, Americans tend to doubt naysayers, believing "where there's a will, there's a way."

When considering a national missile defense, analysts say, it's more probable that Americans make the analogy to the country's ability to land men on the moon than the one many scientists use: the Maginot Line, France's attempt to seal its eastern border after World War I and make itself invulnerable to Germany.

Like France's preposterously elaborate fortifications, which took 15 years to build and Nazi Germany only three days to circumvent in 1940, critics of US missile defense say it surely will fall - or at least be rendered irrelevant - because of a clever enemy's creative method of attack.

"It's misleading to give the American people the idea that we can isolate ourselves and defend against a nuclear attack," said Jack Shanahan, a retired vice admiral of the Navy and chair of the military advisory committee for Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a Washington-based group that monitors defense spending. "A country with the ability to build a ballistic missile could surely find many ways to attack."

Since the beginning of the Cold War, the United States has relied on two principal policies to avert a nuclear confrontation: arms control agreements and Mutually Assured Destruction, the vow to annihilate, through the use of nuclear weapons, any nation that attacks the United States with nuclear weapons.

There's no reason the decades-old deterrence strategy would not ward off such future attacks, critics say. A determined aggressor, unlikely to commit national suicide, is more likely to deliver a suitcase-sized nuclear weapon to the United States clandestinely by truck than overtly by intercontinental ballistic missile. Moreover, analysts warn, the deployment of a national missile defense might jeopardize arms control progress, as it would violate existing treaties and probably be viewed as a direct threat to nations such as Russia and China.

Still, something fascinates Americans about the idea of an impenetrable missile shield.

The idea is as old as the nuclear age. And for a short period in the 1970s, the United States did have a limited defense. After the US-Soviet 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty - which allows each nation to field 100 interceptors but specifically bars national missile defenses - the United States built a $23.5 billion system called "Safeguard" to protect missile silos in Grand Forks, N.D. Because of its inadequacy, the US government abandoned the system 135 days after building it.

The missile defense scheme was reincarnated in 1983, when President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based antimissile system later dubbed "Star Wars." But after the Pentagon invested billions in it, technical difficulties and the fall of the Soviet Union ended the program.

"After all these years, polls show many people believe the USA already has a national missile defense system," said Robert Pfaltzgraff, professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School of Government at Tufts University. "They think the government isn't leveling with the people. They refuse to believe we are vulnerable to a missile attack."

Yet the United States remains far from erecting a shield. But like many government programs, the national missile defense project has never died. Millions of dollars continue to flow each year to the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Office, which plans to conduct more than a dozen tests of a modified national missile defense system before 2005.

That's the date a commission headed by Rumsfeld warned that the United States could face the threat of missile attacks from countries including North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.

The Pentagon is still pursuing the Clinton administration's plan to deploy 100 interceptors at a base in Alaska and a network of sophisticated radar systems around the world, including the one on Alaska's Sheyma Island that Bush is expected to contract out for construction in the next few weeks. If construction doesn't begin this spring - which Russia argues would violate the ABM Treaty - deployment could be delayed until 2007.

While most polls show Americans consistently support the principle of a national missile defense, critics say support falls off when pollsters ask more than whether people would favor such a system.

If people are told the plan is unlikely to work, might provoke an arms race, and costs billions of dollars that might be better spent on other military programs, the majority slips into a minority.

According to a recent nationwide New York Times/CBS poll, for example, 58 percent of Americans said they favor national missile defense. When told that the United States has already spent $60 billion over the years trying to develop the system, the support dropped to 48 percent. And when pollsters asked if the people would support missile defense if many scientists concluded it's unlikely to work, support fell to 25 percent.

"The simple answer to why Americans say they support missile defense: Who would not want to defend America?" said Stephen Young, deputy director of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, an arms control group based in Washington. "But once you get into the details, something else becomes clear: It all depends on how you frame the issue."