- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

Seventeen years ago today Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative to study how best to defend the country against ballistic missiles. The bad news is that after all these years the country is still completely defenseless against such weapons. The good news is that missile defense supporters have won the national debate and defenses will be built. The issue now is what defenses to build and when.
Even some arms control advocates now admit the obvious. On March 8, the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London issued a report titled "Deploying NMD: Not Whether But How." The authors, fellows at the liberal Brookings Institution, concede that "critics of missile defense have lost the debate."
The approach now taken by opponents is to work for delay. Despite seven successful intercepts in missile defense flight tests over the past year, opponents continue to claim the technology is not yet ready and urge President Clinton to delay the decision he promised to make this year on whether to deploy a National Missile Defense (NMD).
This week the Pentagon announced a delay from May to June in the next NMD flight test, which will fuel new calls for the president to delay his decision. But the Pentagon also says it will have enough information to make a deployment recommendation in late July. Mr. Clinton then should act promptly.
After 17 years of research, it is ridiculous to suggest further delays in deployment. But even some Republicans are asking for delay for a different reason, to allow the next president to decide what to do. Henry Kissinger, who pushed through the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty that bans a national missile defense 28 years ago now supports an NMD, but not right away.
In a syndicated column last month, Mr. Kissinger wrote persuasively in favor of early NMD deployment, but then echoed opponents by calling for delay in a deployment decision. He reasons there is a choice of missile defense options land-based, sea-based, and space-based and which to deploy should be decided by the next president. He also points out that we must either amend or withdraw from the ABM treaty, arguing that a decision should be made on what kind of defense to build before negotiating with the Russians on the treaty.
The problem is we have been there before. During 12 Reagan and Bush years there was bitter infighting between ABM treaty supporters and opponents, and advocates of one type of missile defense or another. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave President Bush a unique opportunity to declare the ABM treaty null and void, but he failed to do so. When Mr. Bush left the White House, we were still bound by the treaty and no decision had been made to deploy anything.
Six more years of research in the Clinton administration, funded aggressively by the Republican Congress, led to preparations to deploy by 2005 a ground-based missile defense of 20 interceptors in Alaska, to be expanded later to 100 interceptors and possibly a second site. This will meet the most urgent need to protect against North Korean or Chinese missiles as well as intimidation and blackmail by those countries. It also will defend against an accidental or unauthorized launch from Russia or elsewhere.
Most members of Congress now support such a limited ground-based defense against the most likely threats, while not upsetting the strategic balance with Russia. Advocates of sea-based and space-based national missile defenses make good arguments for those options, but there is no consensus for them as the primary NMD, as there is for a limited ground-based defense. Over the past two decades, a huge effort has been made to get ground-based missile defense technology to its present advanced stage. It would be counterproductive to change direction away from those technologies just as they are ready for deployment.
The proposed ground-based missile defense in Alaska is the earliest option available to defend the United States. Once in place, it will evolve over time like all weapons. It can be improved, expanded and augmented by sea-based and other systems once we are free of the ABM Treaty, and as the technology develops and the threat changes.
It may be tempting to wait for a Republican president, but the threat will not wait, and further delay will seriously impair the effort. Mr. Clinton's decision to deploy is just the first in a series of decisions that must be made over the next three years to make the target date of 2005. The goal should be to get that first site operational before it is needed to deter China from deciding to attack Taiwan while holding the U.S. at bay with nuclear missiles.
To meet the 2005 deadline, the initial deployment decision must be made this year. The next president will have plenty of other decisions to make, such as how best to get out of the ABM Treaty and when to add sea-based defenses. Republicans and Democrats alike who want to defend the country should put partisan politics aside and support the earliest possible deployment of a national missile defense.


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