- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

Eighteen years ago today, President Ronald Reagan set in motion a series of events that, in large part, led to the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War. On March 23, 1983, President Reagan outlined his Strategic Defense Initiative as the most effective and only way to protect our nation against a ballistic missile attack.

Highly classified CIA documents released earlier this month confirm that President Reagan's declaration sent shivers down the spines of the communist leaders in the Soviet Union, who recognized once and for all that they could no longer compete against so powerful a nation and so determined a president.

President Reagan conceived the idea of a missile defense system after concluding that for all the warships and aircraft in the American fleet, our nation was defenseless against deadly long-range missiles. To truly protect ourselves, he reasoned, America needed more than a strong offense. It needed an impenetrable defense.

Today, the Cold War is over, but the awesome threat posed by rogue nations armed with weapons of mass destruction is possibly greater than at any time over the past half-century. Indeed, in the 18 years since Mr. Reagan outlined his goal of a missile defense system, our nation still remains startlingly vulnerable to attack.

Congress last year reaffirmed Ronald Reagan's objective to develop a missile defense system in a resolution that was as plainspoken and straightforward as the president himself. President George W. Bush has vowed to make missile defense among his top national security priorities.

He has good reason to. While continued threats from communist China, Iran and Russia are of grave concern, new ones from old enemies like Saddam Hussein, now apparently armed with two fully operational nuclear bombs, spell continued dangers for years to come.

Indeed, the depth of the threat to America posed by rogue nations and terrorist organizations was detailed in 1998 when a commission headed by now-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the United States will be subject to a no-warning missile attack within five years.

Russia continues to invest enormous sums of money in a weapons modernization program, including developing a new class of strategic submarines, land-based systems and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. China, meanwhile, makes no secret of its intention to add to its already huge stockpile of arms.

An even greater threat may be posed by North Korea, which could have the technological capability by 2005 to obliterate virtually any American city with a nuclear missile. At present, its No Dong missile is capable of striking Japan, South Korea and U.S. military bases while its Taepo Dong 2, now under development, will be able to reach Alaska and Hawaii.

Syria and Libya, meanwhile, continue to trade extensively with China and Russia in an effort to develop their own systems. Iran, however, may pose the greatest threat of them all. According to the Rumsfeld Commission, Iran is on the verge of producing a long-range ballistic missile that would be capable of striking cities as far away as Philadelphia, and St. Paul, Minn.

Those who oppose developing a missile defense system often claim it represents an act of aggression on the part of the United States. They fail to realize that its fundamental purpose is to protect the United States, much like a bullet proof vest shields a police officer from an incoming bullet.

The debate over deploying a missile defense system bears striking resemblance to a similar debate in England nearly 70 years ago. During a time of relative stability, English leaders almost failed to heed the warnings of Winston Churchill, who called for utilizing the newest technologies to protect his people from attack, especially in light of Germany's aggressive effort to rebuild the Luftwaffe and develop weapons of mass destruction. At the time, some called Churchill's plan science fiction. Today, we call it radar.

With sophisticated weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles in the hands of avowed enemies of the United States, we have a responsibility to uphold that most solemn duty enshrined in the first sentence of the United States Constitution "to provide for the common defense." To meet this never-ending challenge in the 21st century, we must develop and deploy a missile defense system.

Rep. Vito Fossella is a New York Republican.

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