- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 1999

The opponents of a national missile defense never give up. They argued for years that missile defenses would not work, but six successful intercepts in flight tests this year have shattered that argument. Now they have a new theme deploying defenses would be "a rush to failure," because it is a high-risk effort. President Clinton, they say, should not decide whether to deploy missile defenses next summer, as he has promised to do.

But a failure to order deployment would leave a huge government program up in the air. The current work to develop but not deploy missile defenses soon will hit a dead end. Decisions are needed urgently not only to deploy, but on how many sites to build and where to put them in Alaska or North Dakota, or both. Also needed is a decision on how many interceptors to deploy 20, 100 or more. Work must be done soon to prepare the sites, but it cannot proceed without these decisions.

Mr. Clinton is willing to build theater missile defenses to protect troops in the field and U.S. allies, but he is reluctant to approve a homeland defense to avoid violating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the defunct Soviet Union. He thought he could turn Russia and China into strategic partners, and the missile threat would just fade away. But neither Moscow nor Beijing became U.S. allies, and now Russia's huge arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles is even more dangerous as its economy sinks, its command and control system deteriorates, and U.S.-Russian relations worsen. To make matters worse, missile technology will not stay in the nonproliferation bottle the administration tries to keep it in as other countries develop, test and deploy new missiles of increasing range and capability.

Despite the growing danger, missile-defense opponents and their supporters in the media continue to defend a policy of mutual assured destruction combined with arms control and unwavering adherence to the ABM treaty. But each new missile test by unfriendly regimes convinces more congressional Democrats to support deployment. Mr. Clinton tried to get on the missile defense bandwagon by promising to develop and test missile-defense technologies, but then assured his left wing that he would make no decision whether to deploy until summer 2000.

Supporters of a national missile defense are understandably suspicious about the timing. It would be illogical to make a major policy decision that would commit the next president just months before an election. Consequently, many believe Mr. Clinton intends to defer a decision to his successor. The idea that a decision should be deferred first arose publicly last month following release of a technical report by a panel of missile defense experts. Chaired by former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch, the panel said the current plan to deploy a limited national missile defense by 2005, if the president decides to deploy one, is on such a tight schedule that the Defense Department might consider deferring a deployment readiness review scheduled for July 2000.

This highly technical recommendation was seized upon by opponents as a reason to defer the president's deployment decision. Much of the mainstream media echoed the cry for deferral. But that is not what the Welch panel suggested. The 40-page report does not mention the presidential decision. It deals only with technical risks and offers advice to the Defense Department on ways to reduce them.

The report was written before the first missile intercept, which was con-ducted Oct. 2 with spec- tacular results. The sim-ulated warhead was more advanced than those possessed by any country except Russia. Yet, the interceptor successfully located and tracked the target, discriminated between the warhead, a decoy balloon and other objects, and achieved a direct hit. The Welch panel had warned about the high risk of conducting such a complicated intercept on the first attempt, but it was a complete success.

Gen. Welch said his group emphasized that developing advanced technologies involves a risk of schedule delays and things not going right, but that does not mean the program is not working. He said his report does not recommend a delay in the president's decision to deploy. Then in a Dec. 2 interview, Maj. Gen. Willie Nance, the program's manager, said if the program is to get defenses in the field by 2005 it is critical to select the site and decide other deployment details at the time the deployment decision is made. To keep the program on schedule, a decision is needed no later than next summer.

Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation asks what if President Kennedy said we would go to the moon, but only after all technical risks were eliminated. We probably would still be waiting. President Kennedy gave the order to get there by the end of the decade despite the risks, and government and industry rose to the challenge. Mr. Clinton should follow that example and order a national missile defense to be deployed within five years. If he does not, the next president will, but valuable time will be lost.

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