Friday, March 5, 2010

Many of us had hoped when the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union disintegrated and, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the West won the Cold War without firing a shot, the world would be a safer place.

The opposite has turned out to be the case. Into the vacuum left by defeated Soviet troops in Afghanistan stepped the Taliban and al Qaeda. China remains an aggressive rival of the U.S., its military and economic ambitions growing. Iran funds Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. North Korea and Iran both stand on the nuclear precipice, thumbing their nose at the civilized world and destabilizing Asia and the Middle East.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to fight “the U.S. and the Zionist regime” from the deck of a newly minted cruise-missile destroyer in the Persian Gulf. This kind of saber-rattling from the leading state sponsor of terrorism poses a threat, not only to the U.S., but to moderate Arab states, Israel and Europe.

This is why the development of anti-ballistic-missile technology is so essential to U.S. security. Off the coast of California on Feb. 11, an American high-powered laser weapon shot down a ballistic missile in the first successful test of an airborne anti-missile laser system.

That’s not the opening line of a new science fiction thriller; in fact, it’s science fact. The so-called Airborne Laser aircraft is capable of training a megawatt-class laser on a missile traveling at 4,000 mph long enough to destroy it in flight.

The potential for such lasers goes well beyond missile defense. Since the laser can be aimed with great precision over long distances, and fired for shorter or longer periods of time, it is a versatile tool in our arsenal for any number of situations requiring high mobility, precision and variable force levels.

And in the same week, we were also reminded of why we are developing the Airborne Laser defense system: Iran recently claimed the ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels and has been steadily developing its missile technology. North Korea, which already possesses nuclear weapons, is pursuing the same course. These and other persistent threats are ominous reminders that it falls to the United States to defend ourselves and our allies against rogue regimes, armed with conventional and unconventional missile technologies.

The successful airborne laser test was as welcome and encouraging to most Americans as the ugly face of Iran’s dictatorship was unwelcome and menacing.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon budget is sorely out of sync with these realities.

Congress and the Obama administration are actually defunding the very same Airborne Laser project that has just succeeded in doing something once relegated to science fiction movies.

Why is Congress mothballing this program when it is on the threshold of success against such potent threats? The Airborne Laser system is capable of destroying ballistic missiles during their vulnerable “boost” phase. This is the exact kind of defensive weapon America needs in the coming years.

Airborne laser defenses are a model of cost-benefit success, costing less than $5 billion over 15 years. While it may be difficult to quantify the deterrent effects of missile defense, we know how terribly expensive a single terrorist strike or a barrage of missiles coming from terrorist safe havens can be.

At the very least, the Pentagon should restore the Airborne Laser project to full funding, add money to explore additional applications of the technology and, once the system has proven through further testing that it is capable and reliable, make the single prototype aircraft available to the military during high-threat emergency situations.

Washington needs to understand that the American people want their country and their allies to be safe from missile attack, and that they want America to be a leader in technology. When voters see their leadership in Washington killing the most advanced, effective programs we have developed over the years, as they seem to be doing with the Airborne Laser program, they have every reason to send new leaders to Washington who are able to understand the American people - and act in their interests.

Maj. Gen. Bentley B. Rayburn, who retired from the Air Force in 2006, is the former commandant of the Air War College.

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