Walking the Missile Defense Tightrope

By Lieutenant David A. Adams, U.S. Navy

Framing is important to any political debate, but in areas of intense strategic uncertainty—such as nuclear weapons and missile defense—efforts to influence congressional attitudes become even more intense. For example, elites successfully manipulated the image of a mushroom cloud exploding over America's backyards to create intense public resistance to the Sentinel antiballistic missile system during the "Great ABM Debate" of the 1960s. Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan's crusade against the "evil empire," combined with several horrific literary descriptions of a nuclear holocaust, gave political life to the nuclear freeze movement and reinforced the desire for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). More recently, images of the Patriot missile during the Gulf War were used to fuel arguments for increased funding of theater ballistic missile defense programs.

Rekindling the Debate

The most recent rebirth of the national missile defense (NMD) issue began when conservative activists—most notably the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Security Policy—convinced Republican leaders to include in their 1994 Contract with America a pledge to deploy "at the earliest possible date a cost-effective, operational antiballistic missile defense system to protect the United States against ballistic missiles." After winning majorities in both the House and Senate, Republicans expeditiously passed a provision to the Defense Authorization Act mandating deployment of an NMD by 2003—and found themselves directly at odds with administration officials, who believed that deploying missile defenses would undermine important arms control agreements.

To discredit the Republican initiative, NMD critics in the Clinton administration cited a recent intelligence estimate that had concluded that a missile attack by China or Russia is unlikely, and that hostile countries—such as North Korea and Iran—are more than a decade away from a long-range ballistic missile capability. In addition, they claimed that the missile technology control agreement had "significantly limited international transfer of missile components and related technologies" and that deployment of dubious missile defenses would inhibit the destruction of thousands of Russian warheads. "By setting U.S. policy on a collision course with the ABM [Antiballistic Missile] treaty," President Bill Clinton explained, "the bill would jeopardize continued Russian implementation of START I [Strategic Arms Reduction Talks] as well as Russian ratification of the START II Treaty."

These arguments against NMD were challenged on all grounds by the Republican Congress. Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) argued that "if Russia does not ratify START II it may be because of the Communists and Nationalists who were just elected to their parliamentary body, not because of this missile defense language." In addition, the recent Chinese missile threats against Taiwan and the United States and the rapidly advancing missile programs in Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and India proved—according to Republicans—that the administration's threat estimate was seriously flawed. Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA) discounted the effectiveness of the agreement limiting missile technology exports, noting the recent interception of Soviet-made high-technology missile guidance equipment on its way to Iraq. Together, these threats fueled the Republican claim of "an existing and expanding threat to the United States from ballistic missiles."

With both sides unwilling to compromise, it came as no surprise when President Clinton vetoed the entire $265billion defense bill, citing his strong objection to its missile defense language. Because of the lack of salient images to convey a danger of ballistic missile threat, there was scant public interest or discussion of the president's veto. Republicans had little choice but to give up their controversial NMD language.

Campaign '96, 3 + 3, and NMD

Angered by the presidential veto and citing polls identifying potential "public outrage" over the neglect of missile defense, some Republican strategists advocated making NMD part of the 1996 presidential campaign. Former Reagan Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney pushed the results of polls and studies of focus groups to convince Republican leaders that NMD could be a winning issue. He realized, however, that missile defense lacked political salience because the American public did not feel threatened by ballistic missiles.

To correct the problem, Gaffney contemplated a media strategy designed to connect the voter to images of a missile threat and a Republican solution. First, a commercial was developed showing a rogue dictator launching a ballistic missile at the United States, followed by a scene of a U.S. general informing the president that the military could do nothing to stop the missile. Second, Gaffney and other missile defense advocates tried to convince Bob Dole to embrace the concept of sea-based NMD. They envisioned him standing on the deck of a destroyer proclaiming that Aegis ships offered a cost-effective solution for defending American cities—a solution the president had neglected because of his outdated Cold War thinking. Reluctant to manipulate active-duty military forces for political purposes, Dole rejected the idea and instead chose a strictly verbal campaign, promising that "on my first day in office, I will set America on a course that will end our vulnerability to missile attack."

Democrats promptly responded, characterizing the "Dole-Gingrich NMD plan as an attempt to resurrect Star Wars." The Clinton presidential campaign and Democratic members of Congress "worked closely with the administration to help frame the terms of the missile defense debate." As a result, President Clinton introduced his "responsible program for NMD," which pledged to continue development of NMD technology for three years, and then be prepared to build the system over an additional three years should it be needed. This proposal, known as "3 + 3," was developed by Vice President Al Gore's national security advisor, Leon Firth, to co-opt the missile defense issue. Firth—a long-time opponent of missile defense—understood that the 3 + 3 initiative would "indefinitely delay deployment of any NMD capability while neutralizing the subject as a campaign issue."

President Clinton's 3 + 3 initiative was a stunning political success. Combined with the Dole campaign's failure to embrace a media strategy, it virtually guaranteed that Dole's claim that "Clinton's opposition to missile defense is one of the most negligent, short-sighted, irresponsible, and potentially catastrophic policies in history" would never resonate with voters. Still unable to imagine the missile threat or a viable solution, the public remained apathetic toward developing missile defenses.

Aegis: NMD through the Back Door

Frustrated by President Clinton's 3 + 3 initiative, Republican leaders turned to another method of deploying an NMD capability. Recognizing the dubious distinction between Navy theater and national missile defense capabilities, Congress began to "plus up" funding for Navy theater ballistic missile defense (TBMD) programs. Representative Curt Weldon would later explain that the motive behind the increased funding was "to see whether or not Navy Upper Tier offers us the potential well beyond protecting a fleet of ships, perhaps even becoming eventually a national missile defense system." In essence, conservatives believed that deploying a sea-based missile defense could "provide a national missile defense capability through the back door."

To bolster funding for Navy missile defense, some congressmen began taking the position that the administration's ground-based NMD effort should be abandoned in favor of a stronger Navy program. They argued that "we should press ahead to make the Navy Theater Wide defense all it can be" and that the money saved by canceling the more expensive, less-effective ground-based defense would more than pay for the Navy's program. Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) has openly articulated this position: "We should immediately upgrade the Navy's Aegis cruisers with long-range defensive interceptors, enabling a global defense that can protect not only America's overseas troops and allies, but also Americans at home." It is clear that sea-based missile defenses have become a quiet cornerstone of many conservatives' plan to defend America from missile attacks. As a result, some advocates are pressing "the naval leadership to act now to communicate the strengths of the Naval NMD concept." They claim that the Navy "could not ask for a more favorable climate" for articulating its potential NMD solution, an assertion that must be viewed with extreme caution.

Hostile Political Waters

A premature decision to pursue national missile defense from the sea openly would send the naval service needlessly into hostile political waters. With continued public apathy on defense issues, the president might be able to go on opposing NMD initiatives with impunity, regardless of congressional support. And the administration believes strongly that the ABM treaty—which expressly prohibits sea-based strategic defenses—best advances U.S. security. Republican calls to abandon this "Cold War relic" have fallen on deaf ears, and even conservatives acknowledge that treaty compliance currently is a prerequisite for funding of any missile defense effort.

The stakes for the Navy are high. Prematurely pursuing an NMD capability could undermine administration support for the Aegis program altogether. Outspoken critics already have argued that Navy missile defenses have "dubious value" and are simply a ploy to justify "largely superfluous" Aegis ships—and some of these arguments apparently have resonated in the White House. In September of last year, for example, some presidential advisors advocated the use of the president's line item veto authority to strike some funding for the Aegis program. Cooler heads—seeking to avoid a direct fight with the Senate majority leader and other Navy supporters in Congress—ultimately prevailed. Nevertheless, the White House staff's enmity for anything amounting to strategic defense definitely played a role in their thinking. The president did cut $30 million that would have financed research on tracking and intercepting asteroids, claiming that the project is a "thinly disguised effort to conduct NMD research."

Increased congressional funding for Navy missile defense clearly is another thinly disguised effort to deploy NMD, but neither the administration nor congressional doves have strongly opposed the "plus up." This current lack of opposition most likely is on account of the infancy of the program and the fact that congressional Democrats are confident that any NMD-capable Navy system is unlikely to be rendered ABM treaty compliant by the administration's Arms Control Implementation and Compliance Office. One highly placed congressional staffer, however, warned that if Navy Upper Tier begins to make serious progress toward deployment, "expect a firestorm of political opposition from the Left."

In some ways, the Navy's staunchest supporters may be its worst enemies. In their recent efforts, missile defense activists have displayed neither the creative knack nor the keen sense of timing necessary to garner long-term political support. Absent a national consensus to withdraw from the ABM treaty, the Navy's leaders should not succumb to any pressure to pursue prematurely a naval NMD capability. Instead, they should walk the TBMD tightrope between disparate political factions, seeking to maintain the shallow political consensus that currently is driving Navy missile defense programs. Thus, the Navy should continue cautious pursuit of ABM treaty compliant theater systems while making closely held preparations to upgrade those systems to defend U.S. cities, should a combination of events and politics compel our nation's leaders to demand such a capability.

Naval NMD: A Natural Defense

National missile defense from the sea, then, is an idea whose political moment has not yet arrived. A public desire for NMD, however, may come sooner than anyone thinks. Several alarming international trends could lead to events that would fuel public anxieties and provide NMD advocates an opportunity to foster a national consensus favoring withdraw from the ABM treaty and deployment of an NMD capability.

For example, President Boris Yeltsin recently activated his nuclear briefcase when Russian air defenses mistook a Norwegian scientific rocket for a U.S. Trident missile, bringing Russia dangerously close to an accidental missile launch. The recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan also have increased public awareness of the nuclear threat, and similar demonstrations by more dangerous countries such as Iran or North Korea, or the launch of a missile against the United States or one of our allies, would change the political climate surrounding the NMD issue instantly. Considering the current conservative fixation on NMD from the sea, naval leaders must think through all the factors surrounding the possibility of developing this capability:

Political Advantages . Sea-based missile defenses have inherent domestic political advantages over other options. Deploying land-based national missile defenses, for example, evokes images of having to fight the war literally from America's backyards, an unsettling idea that generated widespread protest during previous ABM debates. The American people prefer a forward defense that holds threats at arm's length. If they become anxious about emerging missile threats, NMD from the sea can provide a culturally consistent answer—a forward missile defense that interdicts the threat "over there" and not over here.

Naval NMD also is consistent with Americans' sense of national mission. Theodore Roosevelt set the 20th-century precedent when he forged a vision where "U.S. military power was used to promote world stability, and U.S. naval forces became an active instrument of American mission." During the Cold War, this was reflected in overseas presence and extended nuclear deterrence. Naval NMD would allow the American people to see the U.S. Navy as the provider of extended missile defense that complements extended deterrence. From international waters, for example, naval ships would be capable of defending all of Japan, South Korea, Israel, and most of Europe. The United States would have to cope with international sensitivities, but a non-committing naval missile defense is likely to be less controversial than a land-based system deployed on foreign territory.

Cost and Capabilities . Naval NMD is an extremely cost effective option. Upgrading the Aegis system to be NMD capable would cost only $3-$6 billion, compared to at least $30 billion for other proposed systems. Navy Upper Tier also offers the longest range (more than a thousand miles) and highest velocity interceptors of any system currently under development. A forward-deployed missile defense would be highly capable of intercepting missiles in the ascent phase over enemy territory or international waters, long before they could approach the continental United States."

Institutional and Operational Factors . The political circumstances surrounding national missile defense can change quickly, but institutional, operational, and programmatic barriers will not. Exploiting the inherent political advantages of NMD from the sea will require service-wide support, but Navy support for its current TBMD programs is shallow at best. One high-placed naval officer explained that if the Navy embraces the missile defense mission, "we will lose those ships to StratCom." Unless broader institutional support for Navy missile defense can be fostered, the Navy may be incapable of presenting a coherent NMD proposal when the opportunity arises.

New operational concepts must be developed to accommodate naval NMD. Pursuing this capability, for example, could diminish the Navy's ability to remain forward deployed. In the midst of a serious missile threat, Congress and the public are likely to demand that any missile defense be used to defend America first. This new requirement could leave the country with insufficient naval surface forces to protect its deployed carrier battle and amphibious ready groups. To avoid these problems, a detailed assessment of naval NMD operational factors is required.

Possibly the most important part of the sea-based NMD equation will be the Navy's missile defense research, development, and acquisition strategy. Several times in the past, missile defense supporters have secured substantial funding to develop an NMD capability, but these efforts ultimately failed because of poor leadership and planning. SDI, for example, spread resources too thin and failed to concentrate on clearly definable goals. The success of innovative programs often depends on the presence of a driven "technological system builder" who has the singular determination to overcome formidable technical hurdles, focus the program on clearly definable goals, demand results, cultivate alliances, and manage critical resources. In this light, a successful naval NMD program must be patterned after Admiral Hyman Rickover's nuclear power or Admiral Raborn's submarine-launched ballistic missile program.


The success of a future naval NMD system ultimately will depend on the Navy's ability to walk a political tightrope between disparate political factions while preparing to unveil a fully thought-out NMD from the sea concept when the threat becomes clear and the political climate changes. To that end, political considerations mandate that—for now—the Navy must pursue only ABM treaty compliant theater systems, while avoiding overt references to a potential naval NMD solution.

Walking the TBMD tightrope, however, is only the first step. Events and images may soon give missile defense supporters the opportunity to frame public and political opinion to favor the immediate deployment of a national missile defense, and a properly presented naval program could offer a quick, cost-effective, and culturally consistent missile defense solution. To be ready for that time, the Navy must identify a clear path to overcoming institutional, financial, and technological hurdles. The right people must be positioned to push the program, and institutional support must be cultivated and operational implications fully explored.

Lieutenant Adams is weapons officer on the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763) and a frequent contributor to Proceedings . This article represents a portion of his thesis research for the Naval Postgraduate School.


Lieutenant Commander Adams is executive officer of the USS Honolulu (SSN-718) and a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

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