- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

Twenty-one years ago today, Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to protect this country from the very real threat of nuclear destruction.

Determined political opposition and severe constraints of the ABM treaty delayed the effort until a president with the political courage to make it happen was in office. That president was George W. Bush, and now the first units of a national missile defense are about to be fielded.This year, 2004, is the year of missile defense.

In about 90 days, the first interceptor will be lowered into its silo at Fort Greely, Alaska, and shortly thereafter will be put on alert to begin defending the country. By the end of the year, six interceptors will be on duty in Alaska and four at Vandenberg AFB in California.

President Bush ordered an initial defense to be ready by Oct. 1, but the Missile Defense Agency plans to put the system on alert as soon as the capability exists to defend against a single missile, probably sometime this summer.

Ten more interceptors will be added in Alaska next year, plus 10 ship-based interceptors. Another 10, perhaps at a third site yet to be determined, are in the 2005 budget to be operational in 2006.

In less than one term, President Bush has gone from zero missile defenses to a system that will grow to more than 40 interceptors over the next three years. If he wins a second term, the system will be improved steadily in block upgrades to become a layered complex of land- and sea-based defenses, supported by space-based sensors and communications, to stop missiles in any phase of flight.

With oceans on both sides of the country, sea-based defenses are important but could not even be considered under the ABM treaty. President Bush’s withdrawal from that treaty made sea-based defenses possible.

Next year, the big ABM radar now being installed on a seagoing platform on the Texas Gulf coast will sail around Cape Horn to the North Pacific, where it will operate near Adak Island, Alaska. Such a floating radar can go where the threat is greatest and avoids the need for another country to approve a radar base. A second sea-based radar is to be added later, probably in the North Atlantic.

In addition, the SPY-1 radars on up to 20 Aegis cruisers and destroyers are being upgraded for missile defense duty. The Navy plans to have five SM-3 interceptors on three Aegis cruisers “on alert” by early next year. Ten more interceptors will be added by the end of 2005, and 40 more over the next two years.

The SM-3 is a 3-stage interceptor that can stop the kind of missiles North Korea has tested. Aegis ships will play an important role in a worldwide network of missile defenses on land and sea. And allies that often dragged their feet, ranging from Japan and Taiwan to Canada, Australia and India, are now lining up to join the effort.

But why is all this necessary, considering the Soviet collapse and Russia’s change to a friendly nation? In the 1990s, a new threat emerged as China, India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea tested ballistic missiles of increasingly greater range. India and Pakistan also tested nuclear weapons, and North Korea, Iran and Libya were secretly developing them.

Finally, North Korea’s launch of a three-stage missile that could be modified to reach the U.S. mainland brought home the danger even to many opponents of missile defense.

Yet, President Bill Clinton continued embracing the ABM Treaty and declined to deploy defenses. When President Bush took office, he reversed that policy and began explaining the need for missile defenses to Russia and the allies.

Then September 11, 2001, showed the U.S. homeland was no longer safe. And three months later, Mr. Bush announced his withdrawal from the ABM treaty.

Since then, military action has enhanced diplomatic efforts to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has been forcibly disarmed, and this helped Libya decide to end its weapons programs. Libya’s cooperation has revealed a global black market in nuclear technologies.

Iran and North Korea are now negotiating, but both have missiles and nuclear programs, and both are unpredictable. Russia still has thousands of aging nuclear weapons and missiles that may fail (as three did in a recent exercise), and which are vulnerable to theft or diversion. China keeps producing missiles and threatening war over Taiwan.

The dangers remain. But missile defenses will protect this country and its allies, while reducing the value of such weapons to those who seek them. Ronald Reagan was right when he started the SDI program 21 years ago. And George W. Bush is right in making missile defense a reality.

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

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