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HEINRICHS: It’s time to get serious about missile defense

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Our friends and foes alike have spent the past several weeks emphasizing the need for missile defense. First, Israel's Iron Dome system showed how well missile defense can work. Then, North Korea demonstrated why the U.S. needs to get serious about its own missile defense program.

The Iron Dome was remarkably effective in knocking out multiple short-range missiles fired by Hamas into Israel, saving Israeli lives. It saved Palestinian lives as well. Being able to stop missiles in flight obviated the need for Israel to eliminate the missile threat by launching a massive conventional attack on Gaza.

Pyongyang's successful Dec. 12 launch of a long-range missile put a satellite into orbit. Satellite launch technology is directly applicable to long-range missile technology.

So, what kind of defense against long-range missile attack does America have? The answer is, "Not enough." Our Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system is the only homeland defense we have deployed, and it protects from certain kinds of attacks. It deploys from two sites — one in California, the other in Alaska. They are home to a total of 30 missile interceptors. A National Academies report recommended a third interceptor site on the East Coast — a recognition of the growing threat of an Iranian missile attack.

Congress has the opportunity to act. The defense authorization bill coming up for a final vote Thursday calls for the Pentagon to explore locations and systems suitable for a third missile defense site.

But missile defense doesn't start — and stop — at our borders. Washington must strengthen cooperative missile defense initiatives with our allies.

The Israelis have proved their savvy and determination to make missile defense work. Several U.S. companies are working with Tel Aviv on next-generation programs, including the David's Sling and the Arrow, geared to intercept medium- and longer-range missiles. The Pentagon should plan now for how to best benefit from these systems once they are ready for prime time.

Our Asian allies have made it clear that they see missile defense as necessary. Japan was poised to shoot down the North Korean missile with the Patriot Advanced Capability system if the missile entered its airspace. Japan also could employ the highly capable sea-based Aegis weapon system. It has a right to do so. The U.S. should publicly affirm that right — and pledge to assist Japan in the endeavor should the need arise. Ditto for South Korea, an ally attacked by North Korea twice last year.

Of course, that won't be popular with Russia or China. Russia keeps demanding that the U.S. abandon plans for a missile defense system in Europe and has even threatened to pre-emptively attack that system should it be deployed. Beijing has opposed installation of a U.S.-Japanese missile defense radar system in Japan, calling it "destabilizing."

Yet Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee that he was sure North Korea's missile program received "some help coming from China." Aiding and abetting Pyongyang's illicit missile program is destabilizing. Purely defensive anti-missile systems are not.

The North Korean missile test serves as another red flag that averting nuclear war isn't about mollifying the Russians or the Chinese. Other countries have nuclear weapons and missiles, too. Weakening our missile defenses in order to placate Moscow and Beijing will leave us and our allies exposed to attack.

The Iron Dome and the North Korean missile launch mark major technological advances. The good guys can't afford to hedge their bets on defense while the bad guys are doubling down on offense. Missile defense must be significantly improved and fully integrated into our strategic planning.

An analyst on nuclear deterrence and missile defense, Rebeccah Heinrichs is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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