- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

It is hard to believe it was 19 years ago today, at the height of the Cold War, when President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative. He ordered the Defense Department to conduct a review of rapid advances in technology to see if anything non-nuclear could stop a ballistic missile.
Last Friday night the Pentagon demonstrated conclusively that it can be done. The third straight successful intercept took place nearly 150 miles over the Pacific Ocean against the most challenging target yet, a dummy warhead with three decoys of different sizes. The missile defense program has survived the Clinton years and is back on track, moving toward an operational capability just 2 years from now.
When President Reagan began this effort in 1983 the Soviets had completed a massive buildup of strategic nuclear power. After adding multiple warheads to new land- and submarine-based missiles, they had some 9,000 strategic nuclear warheads aimed at the United States.
Americans lived for years in the frightening world of mutual assured destruction the MAD concept that kept the nation defenseless against ballistic missiles. MAD was based on the twisted logic that if both sides were armed to the teeth but defenseless neither would strike the other and risk a devastating counterattack. But Mr. Reagan was unwilling to accept the possibility that if deterrence failed millions of Americans would die. He ordered the Pentagon to focus America's technological talent on the problem.
Just a year later, in a 1984 test, an interceptor struck and destroyed a target intercontinental ballistic missile, showing that hit-to-kill technology could work. Hit-to-kill (destroying a warhead by direct impact) was further improved by better sensors, high-speed computers, miniaturization and other technological advances. As ideas for particle beams, laser weapons, mirrors in space, and other concepts were canceled or deferred because of high cost and technical problems, hit-to-kill became the technology most likely to succeed.
Hit-to-kill interceptors could be based on land, at sea, or in space, but the ABM treaty prohibited sea-based and space-based weapons. The Clinton administration scrapped plans to develop space-based interceptors and other things impeded by the treaty and tried to develop a treaty-compliant defense, only to conclude it could not be done. As ballistic missiles proliferated and Congress demanded action, Mr. Clinton tried to negotiate amendments to the treaty to allow a site of land-based interceptors in Alaska. Predictably, Moscow would not even consider amending a treaty that effectively blocked U.S. defenses.
President George W. Bush changed all that. He spent nearly a year patiently explaining to Russia and the allies why the end of the Cold War and the rise of other threats required moving beyond the ABM treaty. Finally, after the treaty's demise had become generally accepted, if not agreed upon, he gave Moscow the required six months notice of withdrawal last Dec. 13. The president upgraded the Missile Defense Agency and removed the artificial distinction created by the treaty between national missile defenses and theater missile defenses.
The end of the treaty now makes it possible to network sensors and interceptors to create a worldwide missile defense internet with multiple layers of defenses to detect and stop missiles of all ranges in all phases of flight. Like President Reagan before him, President Bush has put all options back on the table, seeking missile defenses that can protect this nation, its troops overseas, and its friends and allies around the world.
As the first step, the administration is pursuing the land-based defense long in development and closest to completion. The Pentagon plans to award contracts on April 12 to begin building the missile test site at Fort Greely, Alaska. Five prototype missile interceptors, together with their battle management and communications infrastructure, will be in place by October 2004.
These interceptors will be test models, but they could stop an incoming missile. If construction goes as planned, by the end of his first term President Bush will have put in place the first missile defense ever to protect the whole nation.
Meanwhile, development continues of new radars, space-based sensors, laser weapons, and sea-based sensors and interceptors, and a rigorous flight test program of the planned midcourse defense is being carried out. Space-based interceptors again are under consideration. The end of the ABM treaty frees the government to defend the country in the best and most cost-effective way.
From now on, missile defenses will be treated like any other weapon system, with block upgrades added and improvements made as the threat evolves and the technology improves. President Reagan would be proud. His dream of defending the country against the one threat for which there has been no defense is soon to be realized.

James Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.

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