In his speech at the National Defense University yesterday, President George W. Bush argued today that the United States “must move beyond the constraints of the 1972 ABM Treaty” and implied that his administration would pursue a robust, layered (land, sea, air and 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 ABM Treaty could mean renegotiating the pact or simply withdrawing from it, but Bush did not announce 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. The problem is that the technology for missile defense needs to catch up with the advertisement. Despite the tens of billions of dollars that the United States has spent on missile defense research and development since the Reagan era, 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 one that is unlikely to work properly and would be expensive and time-consuming to fix after deployment--the situation now faced by V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft being developed by the Marine Corps. Even if the North Korean threat matures faster than expected--unlikely, given North Korea’s current moratorium on missile testing--rushing the development of missile defense could actually delay the fielding of a workable system. The Bush administration should take its time evaluating the options and thoroughly testing the technology so that taxpayers do not end up holding the bag. 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.