Star Wars Ii: Less Ambitious, So More Likely?

He was chosen for his wide experience in defense matters and management. But sure-footed as Donald H. Rumsfeld is, President-elect George W. Bush's pick for Defense Secretary could find himself at the center of a foreign-policy debate that may strain America's relations with friends and foes from Berlin to Beijing. Together with his new boss, Rumsfeld is expected to push for a controversial national missile defense system far grander and more sophisticated than the $60 billion system the Clinton Administration contemplated. There is "a compelling argument for the need for the U.S. to develop a missile defense that'll work," said Bush on Dec. 28 while nominating the 68-year-old Rumsfeld, who was Defense Secretary in the Ford Administration and later CEO of both General Instrument Corp. and G.D. Searle & Co.

Bush's dream is to fulfill Ronald Reagan's old vision of a so-called Star Wars defense against nuclear attacks--albeit a version aimed at thwarting a handful of missiles launched by rogue states rather than the Soviet Union's huge arsenal. But critics argue that such a system would upset the balance of power in nuclear weapons and perhaps even set off a new arms race. Missile defense "risks eroding 40 years of efforts to create a nonproliferation regime that works quite well," says one European diplomat.

QUICK STUDIES. Rumsfeld, however, sees a serious threat from the likes of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. He headed a commission in 1998 that concluded these nations could develop offensive systems within five years of their decision to deploy them, without the knowledge of Western intelligence. "We are in a new national security environment," Rumsfeld says. He and Bush have made it clear that they--unlike Clinton--have few qualms about abrogating the key 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the U.S. and Moscow, the cornerstone of arms control. To preserve the core of the treaty, Clinton had proposed a modest land-based missile defense system. Bush and Rumsfeld, by contrast, are contemplating a land, sea, and space-based system that would station missile interceptors at strategic locations around the globe.

Can Bush and Rumsfeld pull off such an ambitious project? A sophisticated missile defense system would take far longer to develop than the six years optimistically estimated for the simpler Clinton blueprint. It's not even clear it will ever be reliable, since early tests of interceptors failed. Bush would have to pour in far more per year than the $2 billion in research and development that Clinton allocated for fiscal 2001: Some analysts estimate the total cost could top $120 billion. Still, a decision to ramp up may come fast. Congress will have to debate additional spending on the project this spring when it considers the budget for fiscal 2002. Funds budgeted by Clinton were set to decline by almost 60%, to $850 million.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld and Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell face a host of potential diplomatic problems. In Seoul, officials are voicing fears that U.S. plans for a national missile defense will chill North Korea's warming relations with the South and spur it to resume its development of ballistic missiles. Others worry that China--which figures Taiwan may seek protection under a U.S. missile shield--may step up plans to modernize and expand its arsenal of 20 ballistic missiles. While Britain and Japan are likely to back a U.S. missile defense system, the German government fears such a buildup could hurt its relationship with Moscow.

The debate over Bush's national missile defense is likely to be as hot as the one over Reagan's Star Wars in the 1980s. Rumsfeld will need to rely on all his experience to prevail.