Congress scrapped this one word from the law, opening the door to a space arms race
David Willman reports in the LA Times:
By removing a single word from legislation governing the military, Congress has laid the groundwork for both a major shift in U.S. nuclear defense doctrine and a costly effort to field space-based weaponry.
Experts say the changes, approved by overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate, could aggravate tensions with Russia and China and prompt a renewed nuclear arms race. The bill awaits action by President Obama. The White House has not said what he will do.
For decades, America’s defense against nuclear attack has rested on twin pillars: The nation’s homeland missile defense system is designed to thwart a small-scale, or “limited,” attack by the likes of North Korea or Iran. As for the threat of a large-scale strike by China or Russia, the prospect of massive U.S. retaliation is supposed to deter both from ever launching missiles.
Central to this strategy was a one-word qualifier – “limited” — used to define the mission of the homeland defense system. The language was carefully crafted to avoid reigniting an arms race among the superpowers.
Now, with virtually no public debate, bipartisan majorities in Congress have removed the word “limited” from the nation’s missile defense policy. They did so in giving final approval over the last month to the year-end defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act.
A related provision of the law calls for the Pentagon to start “research, development, test and evaluation” of space-based systems for missile defense.
A space-based defense program would hinge on annual congressional appropriations and decisions by the incoming Trump administration.
Yet both proponents and opponents say the policy changes have momentous implications.
“These amendments were historic in nature — given the paradigm shift forward that they represent,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who introduced and shepherded the amendments in the House.
Leading defense scientists said the idea that a space-based system could provide security against nuclear attack is a fantasy.
“It defies the laws of physics and is not based on science of any kind,” said L. David Montague, a retired president of missile systems for Lockheed Corp. and co-chair of a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied missile defense technologies at the request of Congress.
“Even if we darken the sky with hundreds or thousands of satellites and interceptors, there’s no way to ensure against a dedicated attack,” Montague said in an interview. “So it’s an opportunity to waste a prodigious amount of money.”
He called the provisions passed by Congress “insanity, pure and simple.”
The National Academy study, released in 2012, concluded that even a bare-bones space-based missile defense system would cost about $200 billion to put in place, and hundreds of billions to operate in subsequent years.
Franks, asked whether the country could afford it, replied: “What is national security worth? It’s priceless.”
Philip E. Coyle III, a former assistant secretary of Defense who headed the Pentagon office responsible for testing and evaluating weapon systems, described the notion of a space-based nuclear shield as “a sham.”
“To do this would cost just gazillions and gazillions,” Coyle said. “The technology isn’t at hand — nor is the money. It’s unfortunate from my point of view that the Congress doesn’t see that.”
He added: “Both Russia and China will use it as an excuse to do something that they want to do.”
The word “limited” has guided U.S. policy since the National Missile Defense Act of 1999. The qualifier reflects, in part, the reality that intercepting and destroying incoming warheads is supremely difficult, and that it would be impractical to field enough interceptors to counter a large-scale attack. Any such system, by its very nature, would be limited. . .
We cannot afford this. The GOP plans to slash programs that benefit the public while launching this boondoggle to benefit the military-industrial-Congressional complex.