Tuesday, March 22, 2005

This spring marks the first time since Ronald Reagan began the Strategic Defense Initiative 22 years ago today that this country is defended against ballistic missiles. It is a minimal defense, to be sure, but it is far better than none.

Nevertheless, it is not enough. Getting that initial defense in the field against determined opposition is a major achievement for President Bush. The job now is to keep expanding and improving it.

The existing defense includes eight land-based interceptors in Alaska and California, internetted with land-based, space-based, and sea-based radars, on what is called “emergency alert status.” A dozen more land-based interceptors are being installed this year, and the first ship-based interceptors soon will put to sea on Aegis destroyers. Next year, more land- and sea-based interceptors will be added, and the defense will be further improved each year thereafter.

Meanwhile, regional missile defenses are being added or upgraded in East Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, to protect U.S. forces and bases, and our friends and allies.

The highly successful Patriot PAC-3 that shot down nine missiles in nine attempts in the Iraq fighting has been sold to Japan and the Netherlands, and will go to Taiwan as soon as its legislature approves the purchase. Other countries interested in buying PAC-3s include Kuwait, Qatar, South Korea, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and several NATO allies.

Linking these regional defenses to missile warning and tracking satellites, and to upgraded Aegis radars on ships around the world, will produce a global network of missile defenses. The SPY-1 radars on 18 U.S. cruisers and destroyers are being upgraded for missile defense. And Aegis ships in the Japanese, South Korean, Australian, and other allied navies will contribute to these defenses.

Development of a high-speed ship-based interceptor, long blocked by the ABM treaty, is a missile defense success story. On Feb. 24, the Navy fired an SM-3 interceptor from the cruiser USS Lake Erie to destroy a target missile launched from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Sea-based and airborne sensors participated in the test, the fifth intercept in six attempts by the SM-3. This sea-based capability will be an important part of worldwide missile defenses.

Despite the progress, opponents of missile defense keep trying to stop its deployment. In the last two tests of the ground-based midcourse defense the interceptor failed to launch, due to minor technical glitches. But this is what a test program is for — to identify and fix problems. These problems are being corrected, yet some would halt further development.

The Congressional Budget Office reported last month billions of dollars could be saved by stopping development of the ground-based defense, and more billions by canceling the Airborne Laser. But missile defense will only serve as a deterrent if it is credible, and freezing the program with just a handful of interceptors would diminish its credibility.

In a real attack, at least two interceptors will be fired at each incoming missile to increase the chance of hitting it. Having enough interceptors on alert is essential when a nuclear weapon is coming your way. So it is important to deploy all 40 interceptors planned for Alaska and California and to begin work on a third interceptor site in Europe.

It also is important to deploy greater numbers of the highly successful ship-based interceptor, and to continue developing and testing the Airborne Laser (ABL). The ABL has shown progress and now is expected to attempt a target shootdown in 2008. The ABL could be deployed rapidly worldwide to destroy missiles in their boost phase with the speed of light. Congress should approve full funding for it in 2006.

Even the critics no longer deny the need for deployed defenses. There is little doubt North Korea has some nuclear weapons, and last month CIA Director Porter Goss told Congress North Korea has a long-range missile that can carry a “nuclear weapon-size payload” to the United States. That cannot be ignored. Neither can Iran’s determination to become a nuclear power. And China, with a nuclear arsenal and missiles, continues to threaten war over Taiwan.

In fact, China’s steady military buildup in support of a fanatical determination to control Taiwan is the main reason to keep improving missile defenses. An effective defense will make Beijing less likely to brandish its nuclear missiles to try to prevent an American defense of Taiwan.

A minimal defense is not enough. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the plan is to keep testing, work out the kinks and develop the system into an effective missile defense capability. Ronald Reagan’s vision would then be realized.

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

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