Real Defense Against Missile Attack

Commentary by Pete du Pont

A central purpose of the Constitution of the United States of America was to "provide for the common defense" and American taxpayers annually cough up $300 billion in pursuit of such security. And what protection do these outlays provide against the most destructive weapon of all, the long-range ballistic missile? None.

Unsettling, yes, but doubly so when we recognize two additional facts: 1) a growing list of national governments-20 at last count-have the capability (or aspire to it) and desire to hurt us from long range, and 2) an affordable, effective system against missile attacks could be deployed within a few years.

But are we at risk? Beijing has dozens of nuclear-armed missiles aimed at us right now and has bragged about its power to incinerate San Francisco. North Korea launched a three-stage missile over Japan and its 4,000-mile Taepo Dong-2 missile can reach Hawaii or Alaska. And nuclear capability and missile technology are spreading at a rapid clip. Large amounts of technology have been transferred to or stolen by the Red Chinese, who spread it to rogues in backwaters like Libya, Iraq and Syria. So we need a defense against missile attack, for deterrence is no defense once enemy missiles leave the launch pad.

But can we really shoot down missiles? Yes, last October a ground-based interceptor hit a target simulating a long-range ballistic missile over the Pacific. More importantly, this spring the Navy, in a classified report long-delayed by the Clinton administration, declared that there is no technological obstacle to deploying a sea-based antimissile system now.

We've already spent $50 billion on Aegis antimissile cruisers and destroyers deployed since 1983 to protect our troops and allies in the field from short- and medium-range missiles. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson says improved systems to stop long-range missiles could be up and running by 2003 at a cost of $5 billion. Sea-based missiles can knock down long-range ballistic missiles at their most vulnerable, shortly after lift-off. True, an elaborate land-based and space-based system has been estimated to cost $22 to $47 billion but let's take it a step at a time.

There's an irony here: negotiated by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration, the old 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the Soviet Union allowed anti-missiles to protect troops but banned continental defenses against long-range ballistic missiles to protect civilians.

That's the absurd doctrine of "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD) still embraced by the Clinton administration. The administration drags its feet on antimissile defense not because of doubts about new technology or its expense but because it believes that we must allow Russia the option of destroying us at will in order to maintain good relations and to promote its agenda of arms control.

It's a little like the administration's theory on gun control: the citizen's best defense against crime and tyranny is to remain vulnerable and stay on good terms with the bad guys. In other words, the best defense is no defense at all; international "peace by paper," as some call it, not peace through vigilance and superior firepower.

Building a limited national missile defense is not terribly controversial. According to opinion polls, the public approves 70 percent strong. Last year the Congress voted by veto-proof margins of 97-3 in the Senate and 317-105 in the House to require the U.S. government to deploy a technically feasible national missile defense system at the earliest possible moment. Even the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that consistently condemns U.S. intervention abroad, says a limited national missile defense is feasible, probably can be deployed at a reasonable cost, and we should proceed with it "at a measured pace."

With an eye on his own popularity and Al Gore's campaign for president, Clinton did not veto antimissile legislation, but he limits testing for fear it will work. On his trip to Moscow a few weeks ago, Clinton begged Russia's blessing to build an ineffective land-based interceptor system in Alaska over the next five years. Fortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned him down.

Defense Secretary William Cohen warns that a large antimissile system would provoke Russia and other countries to increase their own nuclear arsenals, making negotiated reductions in nuclear warheads less likely. Oh? If we already had an antimissile defense in place, Cohen's illogic implies that we should drop it so our enemies will destroy their warheads.

This kind of wooly thinking is preventing an antimissile defense. Hopefully the next President will have clear vision, and build what needs to be built to protect us all.



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.