- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

Today, 18 years after President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, we are on the verge of making his dream a reality.

If ever there was an opportune time to begin building missile defenses it is now. Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney is America's first de facto prime minister, missile defense advocate Donald Rumsfeld is back for a second tour as defense secretary, and missile defense true believers are moving into policy-level jobs at the Pentagon.

Both houses of Congress are in Republican hands for the first time in decades. But most important, we have a president who understands the need and is committed to doing something about it.

And now the allies are getting on board. The British, German, Canadian and other governments that were cool to the idea of a U.S. national missile defense are accepting its inevitability and insisting they, too, must be defended. Russia remains adamantly opposed, but Moscow's acceptance that there are missile threats and its offer to sell missile defenses to Europe has undermined its opposition.

Beijing remains vociferously opposed. But China, with hundreds of missiles deployed against Taiwan and threatening a quick strike against the island nation, while planning to hold the U.S. at bay with nuclear-armed missiles, is the main reason defenses are needed. Another reason is North Korea. Despite some improvement in relations between North and South, North Korea's missile threat continues to grow.

The South Korean Defense Ministry reports that North Korea has been building six new launch sites for Scuds that target South Korea and Nodongs that threaten Japan. Some are underground, while the new Nodong base at Yongjo-dong is only 12 miles from the Chinese border, making it hard to attack without entering Chinese air space.

Press reports from South Korea citing government sources claim the North now has 500 Scuds and more than 100 Nodongs. As recently as March 13, a North Korean publication said in the event of war the North would destroy U.S. bases in South Korea, Okinawa and Guam. If that isn't a threat, what is?

The main purpose of missile defenses is to prevent missiles from being used for blackmail and intimidation. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and their delivery by ballistic missile so hard to stop that any country with those weapons can blackmail and intimidate others. But by protecting against them, missile defenses will greatly reduce their value.

Mr. Rumsfeld is on the right track when he says he no longer distinguishes between national and theater missile defenses, an arbitrary division embodied in the ABM treaty. As there are missiles of various ranges and capabilities, there must be a variety of defenses to stop them. The Pentagon has five major programs developing missile defenses, three land-based and two sea-based. To defend our troops abroad, the allies, and the nation itself, all five are needed. Congress should provide the funds they need to become operational as soon as possible.

With the allies coming around, a major impediment is being removed. But two major impediments remain: the ABM treaty and fratricide by missile defense supporters. The ABM treaty is the greatest problem because it blocks effective defenses. Some allies and domestic opponents have switched from opposing NMD to supporting the ABM treaty, knowing the two are incompatible. But the only way to deploy effective defenses is to withdraw from the treaty.

Fratricide among supporters is serious. Some believe the best solution is sea-based defenses, some advocate space-based systems and still others want to build land-based defenses. In reality, the best defense would be a layered system combining elements of all three. In 1988, when Sen. Sam Nunn, Georgia Democrat, proposed a limited land-based defense he called ALPS, policy officials rejected the opportunity to move toward deployment, fearing they would get limited land-based defenses and no more. Yet, today, 13 years later, we still have no defenses at all.

Now the same arguments are being heard again. If we build land-based defenses, some say, we never will get the sea-based or space-based systems they favor. But deferring a land-based deployment would be counterproductive, because decades of research and development have brought a land-based NMD years closer to deployment than any alternative. Also, the planned site in Alaska would deal effectively with the immediate threat blackmail and intimidation by North Korea and China.

And once that initial defense is under way, sea-based and space-based components can be added, as soon as those technologies are ready, to provide what is really needed, a layered global defense against all classes of missiles.

Eighteen years is long enough to wait. President George W. Bush should duplicate President Reagan's bold stroke with one of his own by giving six months' notice of withdrawal from the ABM treaty and ordering construction to begin in Alaska.

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