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Column: Obama Should Cut Missile Defense From Pentagon Budget

This story was written by Dylan R. Matthews, Harvard Crimson


If The New York Times is to be believed, President-elect Barack Obama is preparing to do the unthinkable: cut the defense budget. According to David Sanger, Obama selected his foreign policy trio Hillary Clinton as secretary ofstate, Robert Gates as secretary of defense and Jim Jones as national security adviser based on their shared determination to shift resources from the military to diplomacy.

While there are plenty of wasteful defense projects to consider excising as a part of this plan, Obama would be wise to focus on one that has plagued U.S. policymakers and taxpayers both for a quarter century: ballistic missile defense.

First proposed by Ronald Reagan in 1983, the concept behind ballistic missile defense is simple. It aims to provide a way to destroy missiles in transit and to thus circumvent the endgame of mutually assured destruction. Technologies have varied, with initial plans favoring nuclear-powered lasers and more recent variants using interceptor missiles. Its initial proposal stirred rancor, but the Defense Department and its agencies have funded ballistic missile defense projects ever since the Reagan administration, sinking at least $30.7 billion into the most recent wave.

Despite changes in form throughout the years, one fact about ballistic missile defense has remained consistently clear: It does not work. It did not work when Reagan first proposed it, it does not work now, and there is nothing to suggest that it will work in the future. Not only have past missile defense schemes from Patriot Missiles to the Bush administrations missile interceptor plans failed, but every available option is inherently easy to fool. As Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg argues, it is impossible to tell whether a missile is loaded or a decoy based on its trajectory above the Earths atmosphere. Hence it will always be possible to bypass a ballistic missile defense system, even if an accurate one were developed eventually.

Moreover, ballistic missile defense systems are becoming less necessary. Russia has less than a third of the 1987-era supply of long-range missiles. Indeed, the two countries with missiles capable of reaching the United States Russia and China have cut their supplies by almost 72 percent since the Cold Wars end. The case for missile defense systems was tenuous even during Americas long struggle with the Soviet Union; today, its indefensible.

While offering little return on investment to the United States, missile defense has cost America immeasurably in the diplomatic arena. In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were on the verge of agreeing to a double-zero deal in which both the U.S. and the Soviet Union would eliminate their entire nuclear stockpiles and with them the specter of nuclear war at large. But Reagans refusal to surrender his Star Wars missile defense shield scuttled the agreement. More recently, the Bush administrations decision to place missile interceptors in Poland led a Russian general to threaten a nuclear strike on that country and the general provocation of that countrys political leadership. These diplomatic losses surely outweigh any potential security advantage afforded by ballistic missile defense.

Finally, ballistic missile defense is very, very expensive. The non-partisan Government Accountability Office estimates that $107 billion was spent on missile defense by 2007, and another $49 billion will be spent if the program continues until 2012. The yearly $10 billion program budget alone is more than twice the yearly State Department budget for the Foreign Service. When more funds are being allocated to failed weapons systems than to the nations diplomatic corps, something has gone wrong.

While Obama is to be commended for wanting to cut the Pentagon budget, e should do more than just cut. He should cut intelligently, promoting innovative programs that are key to modern peacekeeping and state-building and scrapping those that are proven failed or outdated. A program such as missile defense, both an obvious error and a relic of the Cold War, should be first on the chopping block.

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