- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

An important anniversary will be marked on Thursday with a Capitol Hill press conference. On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan first committed his administration and the nation to the development and deployment of anti-missile defenses that would permit American lives to be "saved, rather than avenged."
Tragically, the participants who are expected to include a number of influential legislators, senior former officials and military officers as well as technologists and public policy activists will be obliged to observe that, 17 years after the Strategic Defense Initiative was launched, the United States still fails the "one-missile test": There are no systems deployed today that could stop even a single ballistic missile fired at this country from reaching its target.
This is a particularly chilling reality in light of the recent threats made by Communist China to use nuclear weapons to attack the United States in the event the man just elected by the people of Taiwan came to power and the PRC retaliated with force. By all accounts, Russia is about to install a career KGB officer who nostalgically recalls the Soviet Union and seems bent on restoring to their former power its instruments of state terror and influence. Vladimir Putin's stated determination to modernize and wield the nuclear arsenal bequeathed by the U.S.S.R. may or may not mean a deliberate renewal of the menace to the United States from that quarter. Most experts agree, however, that there is a non-trivial danger of an accidental or unauthorized missile launch from Russia.
Meanwhile, North Korea is believed to have acquired or shortly will do so the long-range missile it needs to hold American targets at risk. The present U.S. inability to thwart such a danger has made such technology a cash crop for Pyongyang and, for that matter, Beijing and Moscow, allowing them to secure hard currency and influence around the world by proliferating missiles and/or the deadly weapons of mass destruction they might deliver.
The fact that the United States remains undefended against these emerging threats is, of course, most immediately the fault of the Clinton-Gore administration. One of its first acts upon coming to office was to dismantle the Strategic Defense Initiative program. It has insisted, contrary to international legal practice and common sense, that the prohibition of any territorial missile defense of the United States contained in the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty an accord signed in 1972 under very different strategic circumstances with a country, the Soviet Union, that went out of business nine years ago remains not only in force, but the sacrosanct "cornerstone of strategic stability."
Perhaps most pernicious of all is the fact the Clinton-Gore team has delayed by years the availability of robust anti-missile defenses with budgetary shenanigans and bureaucratic skulduggery. As a result, it contends, 2005 is the earliest the United States could have even a very limited defensive capability deployed at a site in Alaska. In other words, all other things being equal, Americans will remain vulnerable to missile attack sometime into the term of the person who will be elected after the man who wins next November's balloting.
Clearly, all other things cannot and must not remain equal. As the participants in Thursday's press conference sponsored by the newly formed Coalition to Protect Americans Now will emphasize, it is simply unacceptable to leave the people and territory of this country vulnerable to missile blackmail or attack for the next five years. The same can be said for our inability to provide anti-missile protection for our forces and allies overseas.
Should this situation be allowed to persist, it seems not only possible but likely that someone, somewhere, will decide to take advantage of this vulnerability. In the event someplace we care about either in this country, or perhaps Taipei, Tokyo or Tel Aviv is attacked, it is predictable that a crash program will be mounted at once to deploy whatever anti-missile defenses we can. At that point, nattering nabobs of scientific negativism will no longer be given the time of day. Cost will be no object. And the status of the ABM Treaty's constraints will no longer be of even academic interest.
The first thing we will do is the first thing we can do: Task the U.S. Navy immediately to adapt elements of its Aegis fleet air defense system so as to enable these existing cruisers and destroyers to shoot down long-range ballistic missiles. By taking advantage of the availability of more than $50 billion worth of sea-going mobile platforms, launchers, missiles, sensors, communications systems and the people that operate them, a near-term defensive capability system could be jury-rigged in short order and at relatively negligible cost.
Of course, such a system will not constitute a leak-proof "astrodome" defense, certainly not in the short-term. Its effectiveness will inevitably be improved with upgrades and modifications over time. And it will provide the greatest protection if it is complemented with ground-, air- and/or space-based defenses that will take somewhat longer to acquire and that should be brought on-line as fast as possible.
If a sea-based anti-missile system is what we would surely do after we have been attacked, it must be asked: Why wouldn't we do it now, before that dreadful event occurs and, perhaps, thereby prevent it from happening?
Incredible as it may seem, the Clinton-Gore administration has done everything imaginable to prevent such an obvious action from being taken. It has consistently denied funds needed to give the Aegis program even limited defensive capabilities against longer-range ballistic missiles. It has adamantly rejected any role for Aegis ships in a National Missile Defense (NMD) program in deference to the ABM Treaty's prohibition on sea-based strategic anti-missile systems. Most recently, officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense have intervened to prevent the submission to Congress on March 15 as required by law of a report that confirms the valuable contribution missile defense-capable ships could make to NMD.
One of the things Republican presidential candidates Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain agree most strongly about is the need to give Aegis ships anti-missile capabilities. The case for doing so is now sufficiently apparent that even the Democrats' leader on arms control matters in the Senate, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, expressed support on March 8 for "an Aegis sea-based system with missiles based off the North Korean coast [that] would let the United States intercept the [North Korean] missiles in their ascents." (Presumably, he would want them to be able to intercept such missiles whether they are going to Seoul or San Francisco.)
We cannot afford to bet that another anniversary of President Reagan's SDI speech can be safely observed without a deployed anti-missile system. Americans need to be protected now, and they can be by an emergency effort to put to "gap-filling" capabilities to sea, a step that may just permit us to have defenses in place before we need them, rather than after.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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