Recently, in a speech at the National Defense University, President George W. Bush argued that the United States “must move beyond the constraints of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty” and implied that his administration would pursue a robust, layered (land, sea, air, and maybe even space-based) missile defense program. The president was purposefully vague about the details of his plans for the ABM Treaty and missile defense. For example, moving beyond the constraints of the current treaty could mean renegotiating the pact or simply withdrawing from it. But Bush avoided announcing such a withdrawal in the speech.

The president’s speech was premature and will needlessly roil relations with the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese. Bush is trying to pacify ardent advocates of missile defense on Capitol Hill and within the Republican party who want to safeguard Ronald Reagan’s dubious Star Wars legacy. The problem is that the technology for missile defense needs to catch up with the advertisement. Despite the tens of billions that the United States has spent on missile defense research and development since Reagan first proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 (a whopping sum as far as military R&D programs go), the technology for even a limited land-based system has not been demonstrated. Proven technologies for sea, air, and space-based systems remain many years away. The Clinton administration was working on a limited land-based system because that was the technology closest to maturity.

A rush to deploy any system would lead to a system that is unlikely to work properly and would be expensive and time-consuming to fix subsequent to deployment-the situation now faced by V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft being developed by the Marine Corps. Even if the North Korean missile threat matures faster than expected-unlikely, given North Korea’s current moratorium on missile testing-rushing development of a missile defense could actually delay the fielding of a workable system. Thus, the Bush administration should take its time evaluating the options and thoroughly testing the technology so that taxpayers do not ending up holding the bag.

National missile defense is the most complex weapon system ever built. “Hitting a bullet with another bullet” is difficult, especially when the bullet is going 15,000 miles per hour. Yet that daunting task may be less difficult than integrating the sensors, interceptors, and battle management system and ensuring that the system will not be fooled by decoy warheads. Instead of accelerating the development program and accepting additional risk to get anything—no matter how ineffective—deployed, tests simulating a realistic operating environment should be added to ensure that the system actually works before the high costs of fielding a system are incurred.

If the administration wants a system that can be deployed in the shortest possible time, it will probably find—as the Clinton administration did—that a limited land—based system is the option of choice. At the present time, a grandiose, layered Star Wars-like missile defense is a fantasy. To spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a system that is purportedly designed to counter only a narrow range of missile threats—that is, to defend against long-range missile attacks from rogue states—is a waste of taxpayer dollars. The system will provide no protection against more likely threats of weapons of mass destruction delivered by a bomb on a ship or aircraft or by a short-range missile fired from a ship off the U.S. coast.

In addition, unlike a more modest land-based missile defense, a more robust, layered system might unduly threaten the Russian and Chinese nuclear deterrents. Those nations might then keep more nuclear weapons in their arsenals than they normally would, deploy missiles with destabilizing multiple warheads, and increase the alert levels of their missiles. Increasing alert levels may be the most dangerous of all, especially if early warning systems were deficient. If either nation erroneously thought that a nuclear attack was underway and that its retaliatory deterrent would be annihilated by the combination of a U.S. offensive strike and defense system, it might have an incentive to launch on warning of an attack. That hair trigger posture does not contribute to a stable nuclear balance. Furthermore, a nuclear arms race with Russia or China—caused by a robust missile defense—would be unnecessary, destabilizing, and costly.

If George W. Bush is truly for constraining the growth of government and guarding the taxpayers’ wallet, he should start by applying those principles to missile defense. A limited threat deserves a limited expenditure of public funds to counter it.