LAST WEEK'S horrific events raise new and urgent questions about the best way to defend ourselves. Given the circumstances of the attacks, some people are questioning anew the ever-controversial and high-profile National Missile Defense project, while others are arguing that we need NMD like never before. The debate is particularly germane to the Seattle area. Boeing is the prime contractor on NMD, with a $13 billion contract through 2007, and stands to gain more as the project is expanded. President Bush is already asking for a 50 percent increase in spending on NMD during the next fiscal year.
We asked four defense experts for their opinion on the merits and prospects of NMD.
Richard Aboulafia is the head aviation analyst for the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., a space and defense consulting firm.
"Talking to some analysts, opinion is quite divided. Some of them think NMD is something of a slam-dunk from a budgetary perspective now. There's some validity to that; there is this fear of the unknown now. On the other hand, for me, it seems like a brainless exercise in planned obsolescence.
"Here's something that takes place that was not done by a state that wants us to know it or by individual groups willing to come forward. That tells me that threats in the future are going to be extremely anonymous and not at all easy to intercept. In the case of a missile, you know where it came from.
"For me, the image of that 757 coming in on the horizon to the Pentagon said it all. Whatever anti-aircraft defenses the Pentagon had were from a high-trajectory threat—a very high angle, coming screaming down on top—just like the [defenses of the] NMD would be. The 757 came in from a very, very low horizon, to the point where it was skimming light poles, and there was no defense against that. It was almost a perfect metaphor for why NMD is ineffective.
"If you look at the level of sophistication here, it just goes to show that our level of reconnaissance and intelligence is completely inadequate. And here we are talking about spending billions per year on space-based lasers."
Philip Gold is a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a former teacher of defense policy at Georgetown University, and the author of two forthcoming books on defense, including Against All Terrors: This People's Next Defense. He taught defense history and policy for 14 years at Georgetown University.
"There are two major objections to missile defense. One is that you can spook the system; it can be decoyed. This doesn't hold up. A Third World country would not have the technical expertise, and it could not test their decoys against our censors.
"Another objection is that a missile comes with a return address. This is true. But when we worry about missile attacks, it is not the bolt out of the blue so much—the kind of thing that happened [last week]. The main concern is dealing with this stuff at the beginning of a crisis when somebody's trying to intimidate you or in the final stages when somebody has nothing left to lose.
"For example, if Afghanistan had missiles pointed at this country, and we tell Afghanistan under international law you're harboring our enemy, you have 24 hours to give him up, and they say, well, we'll give him up but it's going to cost you five cities.
"What worries me more than someone like Saddam Hussein right now is the situation in southern and southeastern Asia. Pakistan and India are the most obvious examples. With the missile and naval buildup in Asia, all kinds of countries who were mad at each other who couldn't get at each other before can get at each other now. I am very worried about what would happen if we tried to get in the middle of one of these fights.
"The Chinese and Russians have spent many billions on mobile missiles that don't need [launching] pads [which can be detected by satellites]. And you also have a problem in that you can also build right up to the very end and let the thing sit there for years. One of the reasons we didn't pick up the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests is that they had done everything except put the nuke in the hole and cap it.
"So it's not just a one-to-one correspondence that because bin Laden's people pulled off this brilliant operation, that missile defense is irrelevant. It's all part of an emerging package."
John Pike is the founder of GlobalSearch.org in Alexandria, Va., a new think tank devoted to defense, space, and intelligence issues. Previously he was a project director for the Federation of American Scientists, where he became one of the nation's leading critics of missile defense.
"I think there has been a tendency over the last decade to concentrate on the exotic threats we face and to focus on the expensive solutions, and a tendency to focus on the threats that are least likely to emerge.
"We've spent an awful lot of time debating missile defense. When was the last time anybody asked, 'Are our airplanes vulnerable to hijacking because the pilots don't lock the cockpit door before they let anybody on the plane?'
"Any entity that is large enough to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is large enough to have something for us to blow up in retaliation, and probably values that enough to not want to see it get blown up. And that's the fundamental difference between dealing with terrorist organizations and dealing with states. It's very hard to blow up a terrorist group. It's distressingly easy to blow up a country."
Phil Nisbet is president of JSA Research in Newport, R.I., which analyzes the aerospace industry for investors. The day after the attack, the company issued a special alert putting all defense stocks on "buy" under the rubric, "Bush administration likely to get its defense budget request—and more!"
"From my point of view it's disingenuous to be saying that the events of the last couple of days provide reasons why we shouldn't be spending money on missile defense. No one can make me believe that these same people, or others like them, will not use ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads and biological and chemical warheads when they are developed by such countries and Iran and Iraq and North Korea and Pakistan.
"I don't think you pit one part of the defense budget against another. You buy what you need, and I think that's exactly what we're going to be doing in the next two or three years."