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Commentary

Enshrining the “Reagan Legacy” Could Cost Taxpayers Plenty


     
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Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a meeting of NATO defense ministers that the United States is likely to deploy a missile defense system before testing is complete. The Bush administration is considering an accelerated effort to deploy a makeshift antiballistic missile system by the end of Bush’s term in 2004. Such a deployment would fulfill a campaign promise and show the administration’s determination to field a system. It would also be an irresponsible waste of the taxpayer’s money.

The Republican Party, self-described as the party of small government, occasionally looks out for the taxpayer (for example, the Bush administration’s $1.35 billion tax cut), but never on defense, and especially never on missile defense—Ronald Reagan’s legacy. Officials in Republican administrations believe there are no limits to the rush for missile defense deployment or the wads of cash that should be squandered doing so.

The General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog, has repeatedly warned that “concurrency” in weapons programs—that is, hurrying production and deployment so that they overlap development and testing—ultimately leads to programs that cost much more and take longer to field effective systems. Because high technology weapons programs fail sometimes during testing (and NMD is about as high risk as they come), they must be thoroughly tested under realistic conditions before a decision is made to produce and deploy them. Otherwise, when the tests uncover flaws in the design—as they often do—the weapon will likely need to undergo an expensive and time-consuming redesign at taxpayer expense. Concurrency happens in many weapons programs because they are hurried for political reasons. The farther along a program gets in the acquisition process—increasing the money flowing to defense industries in states and congressional districts—the more political support it will have against termination.

A recent example of the consequences of concurrency is illustrative. The V-22 tiltrotor aircraft, used to transport Marines from ships to land during an amphibious assault, was insufficiently tested before going into limited production. The aircraft has crashed because its hydraulic system was designed poorly. Political support in Congress led to a recent decision to continue to produce this flawed aircraft at low rates until its design can be fixed. The redesign will take two or three years and taxpayers will finance it.

The potential for trouble with concurrency in missile defense is much greater than with other weapons programs. National missile defense (NMD) is the most complex weapons program ever undertaken. In addition, because missile defense is symbolic of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, the political pressure to deploy any system-whether it works or not-is intense. Finally, the cavalier attitude on the part of Bush administration officials about the system’s likely effectiveness shows that for them, NMD is mainly a political symbol for domestic consumption and only secondarily a system to protect the nation: “It is a simple question: Is something better than nothing?” said a senior defense official. “The president and the secretary [of defense] have made it pretty clear they believe that some missile defense in the near term is in fact better than nothing.”

The only valid reason for rushing a weapon system into production is an overwhelming, dangerous, and rapidly burgeoning threat-for example, Nazi Germany. Even during the Cold War, the threat did not warrant rushing weapons into production. Now, the threat is limited to a few small rogue states that do not yet have the long-range missiles needed to reach the United States with weapons of mass destruction. One day, they probably will, but, in most cases, will probably be deterred from attack by the huge offensive nuclear arsenal that the United States already possesses. The best reason for building an NMD—after it has been demonstrated to be effective by realistic testing—is an accidental launch by one of those small nations. They will be inexperienced with nuclear weapons and doctrine, may possess insufficient nuclear safeguards, and will probably have inadequate early warning systems.

But building such a defense could worsen existing threats. Building a large missile defense could threaten or anger Russia. Russia’s deteriorating early warning capability already makes accidental nuclear war a threat now. If Russia felt that its nuclear deterrent was threatened, it could keep its nuclear forces on a hair trigger-ready to launch quickly so that more survive. Given the decrepit state of the Russian early warning system, that posture could be especially dangerous. Furthermore, if Russia was angered by a large missile defense, it could sell the rogue states weapons of mass destruction (or merely fail to safeguard them so theft was more likely) or decoys to defeat the U.S. missile defense. In the former case, we would be hastening the threat that we are trying to defeat with missile defense.

Thus, a balance must be struck that responds to the future threat of inexperienced rogue states with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles without making the current threats of Russian proliferation and accidental launch worse. The solution: a small, affordable missile defense that does not threaten or anger Russia and is thoroughly tested before purchase.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


  New from Ivan Eland!
RECARVING RUSHMORE (UPDATED EDITION): Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty
Taking a distinctly new approach, Ivan Eland profiles each U.S. president from Washington to Obama on the merits of his policies and whether those strategies contributed to peace, prosperity, and liberty. This ranking system is based on how effective each president was in fulfilling his oath to uphold the Constitution.






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