Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rumsfeld's Rule

U.S. President-elect George W. Bush’s selection of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary came as something of a surprise to many. Rumsfeld, who occupied the top chair at the Pentagon during the last 14 months of President Gerald Ford’s administration, has generally been hailed as a strong choice equal in stature to the administration’s other foreign policy heavyweights — Colin Powell, who has been nominated to become secretary of state, and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney.

It is likely that Rumsfeld’s nomination will be quickly confirmed by the Senate. But based on his previous record on defense and the positions he currently holds on several key issues, there is good reason for those troubled by the Pentagon’s increasingly untamed and extravagant programs to be concerned.

According to his official biography, as defense secretary in the 1970s Rumsfeld "sought to reverse the gradual [post-Vietnam] decline in the Defense budget and to build up U.S. strategic and conventional forces." He was particularly concerned with the "aging" submarine and B-52 bomber forces and the survivability of the Minuteman force. He pushed ahead with the B-1 bomber, the Trident ballistic missile submarine and the MX (Peacekeeper) intercontinental ballistic missile programs. A skeptic on arms control, he opposed the 1979 SALT II treaty.

In 1997-98, Rumsfeld chaired the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. That body concluded that rogue states such as North Korea and Iran might be able to develop ICBMs within five years, which was sooner than the U.S. intelligence community thought at the time. But contrary to what some partisans would have one believe, the commission neither examined the question of whether the United States needed to have a national missile defense system by 2003 nor called for deployment of such a system.

Since the commission issued its report in July 1998, Rumsfeld has been a leading advocate of NMD. There is no reason to believe that he will alter that position, despite the fact that neither North Korea nor Iran today appear any closer to deploying missiles that could threaten the United States.

In fact, not only does it seem likely that the currently proposed land-based anti-ballistic missile system, with sites in Alaska and North Dakota, will be allowed to proceed, but many believe that Rumsfeld will opt to throw more funds at the Navy’s sea-based alternative system, prohibited by the 1972 ABM treaty, as well as endorse the faster development of both the Air Force’s airborne laser and, more ominously, space-based lasers. (The latter are also banned by the 1972 ABM treaty.)

Meanwhile, later this month, another congressionally mandated panel chaired by Rumsfeld will issue its report, this time on the threats facing U.S. satellites in space. With the United States becoming increasingly dependent on both civilian and military satellites for communications and data gathering, it is certainly reasonable for the nation to take reasonable steps to safeguard these critical systems.

But what this panel is expected to recommend is for the United States not only to take steps to insure the safety of its satellite systems, but to mount an accelerated effort to develop anti-satellite weapons, including some based on the ground and others in space.

The idea of fielding such anti-satellite systems has been around almost as long as there have been satellites. Despite billions spent by both the United States and the former Soviet Union over the years, such programs have been largely ineffective.

Funding for such programs peaked at $91 million in 1991 before declining sharply under the Clinton administration, where they were sustained only by congressional action. In fact, President Bill Clinton, using his line-item veto authority, tried to delete $37.5 million for an anti-satellite program from the budget for fiscal year 1998, only to see the funds restored when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the line-item veto unconstitutional.

A year ago, however, the Defense Science Board recommended that such programs receive a lower priority. Then, just last month, the General Accounting Office found the whole program "in disarray" and facing an "uncertain future" because it had no clear objectives, no commitment for continued funding and no "effective oversight and management."

The history of anti-satellite systems is nearly as troubled, both from a technological and diplomatic standpoint, as the national missile defense system. Yet, by choosing Rumsfeld to be the next defense secretary, it appears that the president-elect has hit upon the one man whose commitment to both of these highly questionable systems is nearly as unswerving as his own.

Colonel Daniel Smith (Ret.) is chief of research for the Center for Defense Information, an independent research organization based in Washington that monitors the military. He contributed this comment to the Global Beat Syndicate.