(CNSNews.com) - A national missile defense system would lessen the possibility of nuclear exchange because it would give the United States and its allies an option other than nuclear retaliation if they were attacked with nuclear ballistic missiles.
"If we have a ballistic missile defense system in place and we intercept an enemy missile and knock it down, it gives the president a few options before he even considers nuclear retaliation. It lessens the possibility of a nuclear escalation," said retired Vice Admiral JD Williams of the Coalition to Protect Americans Now, a national organization that supports missile defense, in an interview with CNSNews.com.
Deterrence worked against Russia and it would work against China, said Williams, a former deputy chief of Naval Operations for Naval Warfare and a supporter of the deployment of land-based and sea-based anti-missile systems.
The National Missile Defense program has been gaining in importance ever since the release of a bipartisan commission's report in 1998 that the US faces a serious threat from missiles launched by rogue states, and the launch of North Korea's powerful medium-range Taepo Dong 1.
The North Korean test demonstrated that that communist country is well on its way to developing intercontinental missiles.
Both the House and the Senate introduced bills last year calling for the development and deployment of a national missile defense system.
"It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack ... " the Senate bill reads in part.
The current plan begins with the deployment in 2005 of 20 interceptors in Alaska. Even after 100 interceptors are deployed in 2007, the system would be capable of knocking out only about 20 to 30 incoming warheads built with primitive technology.
Russia and China have warned that the missile shield, the so-called "Star Wars" defense envisioned by President Ronald Reagan, could set off a new arms race. The deployment of an ABM system would make Beijing feel compelled to quickly expand its arsenal of about 20 long-range missiles and possibly upgrade them with multiple warheads, some defense analysts say.
Russia and China also could develop relatively inexpensive countermeasures, such as decoys, that they would sell to Iraq and North Korea - the countries the US is most worried about, they say.
US allies also appear to be divided on whether to support missile defense. An America protected by a missile defense system would be the first step in a gradual unraveling of NATO, they fear.
President Clinton and congressional Democrats are lukewarm to the idea but support it because of its popularity with voters. During a State of the Union address, Clinton requested funding increases in 1999 for a missile defense system, partly to take the issue off the table for Republicans in the presidential election in November, political analysts contend.
Clinton Decision Expected in the Fall
As a condition of the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, Clinton will make a decision by the end of summer to pick a particular deployment plan for missile defense and to establish a program for the deployment of that system "as soon as is technologically possible."
"It is not a decision to deploy," Baker Spring, a national security research fellow with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, told CNSNews.com. "The basic decision to deploy was made when the president signed the act in July 1999."
Spring said some threats are practically impossible to deter. "The obvious ones are the accidental and unauthorized launches. No level of deterrence is going to be applicable in those circumstances."
The threat of massive retaliation against a rogue nation is not always enough for effective defense, Spring said. "It's important to take stock of the lessons we learned in the Gulf War. Decision-makers in Iraq decided to launch ballistic missile strikes at Israel despite the fact that most people assume that if they wanted to, Israel could have responded with nuclear weapons."
But as the system relates to purposeful attacks, the basic technology would be effective in deterring incoming missiles, he said.
Spring said it is important for the US to include its allies in the plan. But the answer to that is not going with the Clinton administration's preferred option of a single ground-based interceptor site in Alaska, but rather a more global approach to include sea-based systems that can defend the US and its allies on equal terms.
"A concern of the allies is that you have this system that's deployed exclusively to protect US territory, and by extension, Canada, against most ICBM-level threats, but doesn't do much for our European allies or our allies in the Pacific region, such as South Korea and Japan. We believe therefore the U.S. must look at a sea-based option and ultimately, space-based," he said.