- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

It is surprising that North Korea’s testing of President Obama by firing a long-range missile should coincide with word from the administration that it plans to slow the major program defending this country against such threats.

When North Korea launched its missile, dozens of radars and other sensors followed it, confirming that its payload fell into the sea. Either its payload was not a satellite or it was one that failed to reach orbit.

Apparently the missile was an improved Taepodong-2 that went farther than ever before. But there is good news. This time a virtual armada of interceptors on land and sea was ready to shoot it down.

A signal achievement of the George W. Bush administration was its withdrawal from the highly restrictive Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the subsequent deployment of missile defenses that previously were banned, such as the land- and sea-based interceptors that stood guard last week.

The backbone of our national missile defense, the 26 Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors in Alaska and California, were on alert, ready to shoot down the missile if ordered to do so. So were a number of Navy ships.

The United States, Japan and South Korea cooperated as never before. A massive surveillance system of space-based, land-based and sea-based radars and airborne sensors covered the Sea of Japan like a blanket. The SPY-1 radars on Aegis destroyers were an important part of this sensor system, providing tracking data to the interceptors on land and sea.

The United States reportedly had seven Aegis ships in the Sea of Japan or the North Pacific to track the launch. Japan had three Aegis destroyers on station, and South Korea's only Aegis destroyer was in the Sea of Japan to help with the tracking. Seven of the U.S. and Japanese destroyers carried SM-3 missile interceptors, designed to shoot down missiles of the kind North Korea has been testing, and some of Japan's Patriot PAC-3 land-based interceptors were moved to locations closer to the expected trajectory.

Because North Korea said it was a satellite launch, the United States did not plan to shoot it down, although Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that could happen - for example, if it took an aberrant course and headed for Hawaii. Japan was ready to shoot down anything that might land on Japanese soil. Because the missile went over northern Honshu Island, dropping its first stage in the Sea of Japan and the second and third in the Pacific, it was possible they might have come down on Japan.

The experience was positive for the United States and its Asian allies. Despite historical animosity between South Korea and Japan, the threat from North Korea brought them together in cooperative missile defense. Hopefully, this Northeast Asian alliance will continue, not only to contain the North Korean regime, but also to confront Chinese territorial expansionism.

It is ironic that the Obama team appears to be planning substantial cuts from the missile defense budget, targeting some of the very weapons that faced this threat. The GMD defense, mainly in Alaska, where it is scheduled to grow to 40 interceptors, is there because that is the best location from which to intercept a missile from North Korea or China heading to Alaska or the U.S. mainland. This existing defense greatly reduces the value of North Korea's missiles and makes it more difficult for China to rattle its long-range nuclear missiles in pressing this country to abandon Taiwan.

Yet the administration may be deferring to those who oppose any national missile defense, supporting the Russian argument that it would upset “strategic stability.” With the global spread of both ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, that Cold War argument no longer makes sense.

What counts now is to defend the United States from threats from any quarter. The ship-based defenses are a wonderful addition, and they should be increased. Their main role, however, is to defend allies and U.S. bases overseas.

The defense of the mainland is based on the interceptors in Alaska. They protect the West Coast, but what about the Eastern half of the country? The base planned for Poland would be an initial step in protecting the Eastern United States and our allies in Europe against a missile from Iran or any group in the Middle East that may get one. That effort should go forward.

The GMD defense in Alaska is important, but new technology must be added as it becomes available to keep ahead of the evolving threat. This national asset must not be sidetracked as a “Bush program.” It protects all Americans and gives Mr. Obama the important ability to say, if a missile is heading for U.S. soil, “Shoot it down.”

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

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