- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

The long effort to defend this country against ballistic missiles is at a crucial stage on this 24th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative. That 1983 speech started an effort that continues to this day in research, development and, under President Bush, actual deployment of defenses against nuclear-armed missiles.

Mr. Bush’s 2002 withdrawal from the ABM treaty, which blocked the deployment of effective defenses, moved the effort from unlimited research to the fielding of defenses on land and sea. Today there are 16 interceptors in Alaska and California defending the country, and there will be 24 by the end of this year.

In addition, Patriot PAC-3 interceptors are protecting our military forces and allies around the world. This month, deployments of PAC-3s are beginning around Tokyo. Sixteen Aegis cruisers and destroyers now have missile surveillance radars and six are modified to carry interceptors. Many are in the Pacific, watching for launches from North Korea. The big sea-based X-band radar is in place off Alaska, and a mobile radar is operating in Japan.

Despite this progress, the effort is at a critical juncture for three reasons:

(1) Congressional control by Democrats raises concern that past opposition by some Democrats to a national missile defense may mean cuts in these programs.

(2) Negotiations with North Korea and Iran could lead some to believe the threat is diminishing and deployments can be delayed.

(3) The outspoken opposition of Russian President Vladimir Putin to U.S. missile defenses in Europe. That includes threats to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty that prohibits the U.S. and Russia from having short- and medium-range missiles, and threats to build and aim such missiles at Europe.

As usual, Moscow is trying to divide the U.S. from its European allies. But the Russian bluster has only stiffened the spine of NATO and most of our allies, especially those formerly under Moscow’s dominion.

Mr. Putin’s ploy is endorsed by the usual leftists and anti-Americans, including Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder and France’s Jacques Chirac, but Mr. Schroeder is out of office and Mr. Chirac soon will be.

The Poles and Czechs are more positive. Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said Moscow wants to keep Poland in its sphere of influence and that will be harder with U.S. missile defenses on Polish soil. And the Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg has said, “We do not allow Russia to forbid us anything.”

A site in Poland will protect the Eastern United States and our bases and allies in Europe against a missile from the Middle East, not from Russia. Since the world is round, it is physically impossible to stop Russian ICBMs going over the North Pole toward the United States from a base in Poland. And a mere 10 interceptors would mean nothing against Russia’s nuclear deterrent of thousands of warheads.

U.S. missile defenses protect against a threat that today is primarily from North Korea and Iran. North Korea has both nuclear weapons and medium-range missiles, and is developing longer-range ones. Its test last July of a three-stage Taepodong-2 failed, but Pyongyang has been developing missiles for more than 20 years and sooner or later will make its long-range versions work.

Iran has medium-range Shahab-3 missiles and seeks to develop nuclear weapons. Critics of a site in Europe point out Iran does not now have a missile that can reach Europe. But Tehran is working on one that will. Last month, Iran used a Shahab to launch a sounding rocket 94 miles straight up, leading even Russian experts to say Iran is on track to create missiles that can reach both Russia and Europe. Add booster rockets and such a missile could reach across the Atlantic.

A site in Europe also would defend against Pakistan, which has both medium-range missiles and an existing nuclear arsenal. Currently a friend, Pakistan could quickly become a threat if al Qaeda succeeds in its continuing effort to assassinate or overthrow President Pervez Musharraf. And on Feb. 23, Pakistan successfully tested a 2-stage Hatf-VI missile with a range of 1,240 miles. A longer-range version could be bought or developed fairly quickly. The threat from the Middle East is real, despite Mr. Putin’s claim to the contrary.

The question on this SDI anniversary is whether congressional Democrats will support programs to defend this country. Continuing deployment means adding more interceptors in Alaska, building a third site in Europe, increasing sea-based defenses, improving radars and other sensors and linking it all together in a global network.

In a few weeks, when the House Armed Services Committee marks up the 2008 defense authorization, we will find out if the Democratic leadership is up to the task.

James Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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