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Defending the homeland

By Gary Brown - posted Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Russia has recently announced that it is “suspending” its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement. This 1990 agreement basically formalised liquidation of the Cold War armed confrontation in central Europe. Under its provisions the former Soviet (then Russian) forces in eastern Europe were reduced and then withdrawn, and the large standing NATO army deployed on the former East-West German border was likewise broken up and most of its American component withdrawn.

The Russian “suspension” of (not yet, at least, withdrawal from) CFE was provoked by the American push to install anti-missile defences in central and eastern Europe.

In fact, the Bush administration’s blind pursuit of missile defence technology has blasted a ruinous swathe through the painfully-achieved structure of agreements that supported global stability during or after (in one case, both) the Cold War.


CFE is the latest casualty, but in 2002 Washington unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. That treaty restricted the deployment of missile defence systems, thus exerting downward pressure on the number of offensive missile systems (intercontinental nuclear missiles). But that meant it stood in the way of “missile defense”.

Some may not know how deeply rooted in US political history this idea actually is. In 1983 Ronald Reagan announced with great fanfare his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, which opponents derisively dubbed “Star Wars”). This was a huge research and development program intended, in Reagan’s own words, to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” by constructing a defensive system which would take out, after launch, all hostile warheads aimed at the US: even if the then Soviets had attacked simultaneously with the thousands of nuclear warheads it could have launched at the US.

To effect this technological marvel there soon emerged proposals for a whole zoo of exotic, not to say science-fictional, weapons and systems, some ground-based, some in orbit. “Directed energy” and “particle beam” weapons, “nuclear-pumped lasers” (you could fire each one just once, because the bomb that did the pumping then destroyed the laser), “battle-mirrors” to reflect laser beams onto their targets. Amid all of these, proposals for anti-ballistic missiles were almost prosaic, but they were there too.

When the Cold War suddenly ended around 1990 (the year of CFE) the massive Soviet nuclear threat - which, make no mistake, had been just as real as the similar US threat to the Soviets - suddenly evaporated. No more need for the huge Star Wars effort. By that stage, however, more than $US17 billion had been spent on SDI: enough to create a substantial military-industrial SDI constituency which, of course, created jobs in numerous American states, thereby garnering self-interested support from the local elected representatives.

By that stage also, two other things were obvious. First, Reagan’s grandiose objectives for SDI were completely unrealisable. Then, as now, there is no defence if you are attacked by thousands of nuclear warheads launched against you on hundreds of missiles. Today, nobody - not even Bush - disputes this truth. Second, the science-fictional technologies were mostly seen for what they were and dumped.

(To this day I don’t see how anyone capable of being elected President of the United States, even someone like Reagan, could have been so gullible as to swallow some of the guff his administration was willing to fund.)


But by 1990 the Republican Party had invested not just $US17 billion of US taxpayers’ money but great gobs of its own political credibility in the idea of “missile defence”. So instead of abandoning the whole mess, the administration of the elder Bush kept it alive by drastically reducing its objectives (instead of “impotent and obsolete” nukes, the new SDI, called GPALS, was to defend against maybe 200 warheads). When the Clinton administration came to office in 1993, the Republicans chivvied and nagged it to fund GPALS. When they got control of Congress in the mid-90s they used it to force a reluctant Clinton to keep the program going.

Nevertheless, Clinton again renamed it (to “National Missile Defense” or NMD) and cut its objectives yet further - from stopping 200 warheads to stopping no more than 20. And in 2000 Clinton refused to authorise deployment of the system because testing had failed to validate it - some components had not been tested at all.

All this changed once the younger Bush became President in 2001. With support from a friendly Congress, Bush charged ahead with “missile defense” as blindly as he charged over his Iraqi precipice.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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