A new National Intelligence Estimate released last week makes it clearer than ever that the Bush administration's headlong rush toward deployment of a national missile defense reflects completely misplaced defense priorities.
For the first time, the CIA and 10 other intelligence agencies that produce the NIE have made the quite logical statement that "U.S. territory is more likely to be attacked with (Weapons of Mass Destruction) using nonmissile means." The tragic events of Sept. 11, which showed, among other things, that those who would do us harm have no need for expensive ballistic missiles to do so, seem to have triggered a welcome change in thinking from previous estimates.
The report goes on to explain that rogue nations or terrorist groups would more likely use ships, trucks or airplanes to deliver deadly payloads to American soil for several reasons: ballistic missile production is much more expensive; ballistic missile launches leave a "return address" that would ensure the total destruction of the launcher by American retaliation; the unsophisticated ballistic missiles that rogue nations or terrorists could get their hands on are often unreliable and inaccurate -- certainly less accurate than parking a Ryder truck under a target building, for instance; missiles are less effective than other means "to disseminate biological warfare agent;" and finally, such means "would avoid missile defenses."
Even if the Bush administration won't take counsel from the reticence of our European and Asian allies to missile defense to heart, if it won't take heed of the warnings of a new arms race as nations around the world try to ensure their ability to defeat any defense we deploy, and if it won't be daunted by the warnings that missile defense technology very well may never work in realistic conditions, shouldn't it finally yield to the best thinking of our own intelligence community about how we should prioritize the threats we face?
The heart of the matter, as it so often is in Washington, is money. The return to federal deficits and economic recession will impact how much funding is available for all of our defense efforts, which now include our continued forward deployment all over the world, the war on terror and the new homeland defense missions, as well as any potential NMD system.
Despite what national missile defense advocates argue, we do face spending constraints. In such a situation, priorities must be established. In the current budget, the Bush administration just increased spending on missile defense by over 60 percent to over $8 billion. The budget which will go to Congress in early February will increase that number by at least another 25 percent to over $10 billion and will bring spending on missile defense over the last 15 years to nearly $100 billion, with little to show for it.
Meanwhile, other agencies, which would better deal with what the National Intelligence Estimate calls the "more likely" threat, are being neglected. One good example is the Coast Guard, the country's principal defense against illicit shipping and a critical tool for preventing terrorists from bringing weapons of mass destruction onto American soil.
With a budget of about $5 billion a year, the Coast Guard has only received about $300 million to date in supplemental funding for the national response to terrorism. This compounds the fact that the Coast Guard is too small to deal with the new missions that it must accomplish, and that it faces dramatic equipment shortfalls -- its ships are relatively old and slow and need to be replaced.
The Coast Guard commandant, Adm. James Loy, modestly recommends that we add at least 4,000 people and at least $400 million to the Coast Guard as a start, because in the post-Sept. 11 period, "we took a lot of energy out of missions enormously important for the country, including those with national security implications." Outside analysts argue that these numbers should be much, much higher in order to shore up the woeful lack of resources the Coast Guard faces.
Spending $8 billon to $10 billion a year on NMD while neglecting other more vital, cost-effective, and common-sensical parts of our defense such as the Coast Guard would be a tragic mistake, akin to buying a high-priced alarm system for a home while leaving the front door unlocked.
The administration's prioritization of rapid deployment of an NMD system flies in the face of what our intelligence agencies now tell us, and could very well result in disastrous consequences to America's security. It will take funding away from other more urgently needed and cost-effective programs that will contribute more to homeland security.
We should shelve deployment plans and focus our energy and resources on preventive measures, which are far more effective at reducing the threat to the homeland than a costly, unproven technological defense.
Alex Tiersky is a research associate in national security at the Council on Foreign Relations.