BRUSSELS — It is difficult to understand the Bush administration’s determination to deploy a national missile defense system, or NMD. All test launches to date — to prevent theoretical nuclear missile attacks — have been either failures or “partial successes.”

One supposes things can only get better, yet even technological perfection would not deal with the real problem. What if “rogue states” refuse to act out their assigned role in the United States’ script? After all, no member of U.S. President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” has signed any agreement saying it will use intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver its weapons of mass destruction. It would certainly be cheaper and easier to deliver by post or by ship — and infinitely more deniable.

Ballistic missiles carry an indelible return address and a guarantee that state actors are involved. Deadly retaliation is inevitable. With so many anonymous options available, what state would allow its territory to be used to launch a missile strike against the U.S.?

Similarly, America’s NMD system would be ineffective against major nuclear powers like Russia and China. With hundreds of ICBMs, Moscow already has the capacity to overwhelm any U.S. defensive shield. Beijing may now have only have 20 ICBMs, but it plans to increase that number to 200 if NMD is deployed.

In addition, multiple independent re-entry vehicles could be installed on such missiles, thus multiplying the number of warheads by a factor of between 10 and 12. These would deploy separately, mixed with decoys, once the missile was past the boost phase and above the atmosphere, with independent targets and independent trajectories, thus complicating re-entry defense way beyond anything currently conceivable. Equally, hundreds of biochemical bomblets could be deployed — for which there is no NMD defense.

If NMD can neither defend against rogue states nor major nuclear powers, then the U.S. administration is either spendthrift, technology obsessed and mad or we are answering the wrong question.

When we look at current thinking on how NMD technology will be deployed, the real purpose becomes clearer. The emphasis is now on boost-phase technologies that will target missiles just after launch, well before they launch their multiple warheads or biochemical bomblets.

The problem is that there are only minutes in which to make the right call and act. Thus if this system had existed in August 1998, the trigger-happy Pentagon would have had four or five minutes at most to decide whether the North Korean launch of a Taepodong 2 missile was a preemptive strike against the U.S. or merely a satellite launch. In fact, it was a North Korean satellite, and taking it out would have precipitated the very conflict NMD was meant to prevent.

Equally, it changes the very nature of NMD from an umbrella over the U.S. to a cage around its enemies. Any land-based missile system designed to strike during boost phase would have to be deployed within 1,000 km of the launch site, thus making the application of such a system difficult against continental powers China and Russia. And even if tightly surrounded, these countries would have areas in their interiors that would be immune from threat.

In other cases, the U.S. would be forced to signal hostile intent in advance by deploying sea-based systems around the intended target or by constructing land-based launch sites in countries neighboring the target.

This, however, would create a final window of opportunity for the target countries to take action before it was too late. They might well be tempted to do so because it is clear that NMD is part of a larger package of measures intended to allow the U.S. to engage in a preemptive conventional strike against states that may have nuclear weapons and an ICBM capacity that they might use to retaliate against a U.S. attack.

In the current climate, the obvious target of choice would be North Korea. Anyone who believes Pyongyang would meekly stand still while the net tightens, waiting for a formal opening of hostilities, must live on a different planet. A paranoid regime, Pyongyang would strike before the noose tightens. The same would be true of other potential victims.

NMD is no defense. Its deployment will turn a less than plausible threat into a real one, turn possibility into probability, and leave countries facing this heightened threat with a host of questionable technologies.

With the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, NMD will spur an arms race with China and threaten a tit-for-tat response from Japan — whose increasing nationalist right will use it as an excuse to abandon the U.S.-imposed Peace Constitution — with the concomitant heightened risks of a new nuclear standoff in East Asia.

At the same time it virtually forces rogue states, for whom survival is the sole priority, to behave badly. NMD harms security more than it helps.

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