Just over one year ago, President Bush gave Russia formal notice that the United States would be withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Some six months after the withdrawal last June, Bush announced yesterday that he has ordered the Secretary of Defense to deploy a missile defense system by late 2004.
Those familiar with the work of the Claremont Institute know we have long fought for National Missile Defense. The announcement by President Bush represents something of a victory in that battle. If carried out, deployment would fulfill Bush's 2000 campaign promise, as well as the National Missile Defense Act passed by Congress in 1999.
The building of even a small system would be a monumental occasion in the history of American national security policy. Unlike previous lukewarm commitments to missile defense — such as Bill Clinton's limited research and development — Bush's order heralds the construction of an operable system, which will provide the foundation for a more robust defense.
Ballistic missiles have been the primary source of strategic threat since the early Cold War. Although the first missile defense project began in 1946, and included such systems as Nike-Zeus, Nike X, and Sentinel, the United States has never had a system capable of "providing for the common defense." The arguments against missile defense are all rooted in the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which implies that deterrence, or nuclear stability, can be best achieved by an exclusive reliance upon offensive means, by a "balance of terror." MAD in fact became official policy in 1962, under that aptly named Secretary of Defense, Robert Strange McNamara.
Though often forgotten, a limited system known as Safeguard was actually operational at Grand Forks, North Dakota from 1974 to 1976, when its funding was cancelled by Congress. But Safeguard was limited to the defense of a single field of ICBMs, and provided no protection whatsoever to the rest of the country. Despite Ronald Reagan's attempt to revive serious missile defense with his Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, America has remained completely defenseless against ballistic missile attack.
Neither the Soviet Union nor its successor-state, Russia, accepted the doctrine of MAD. As early as 1965, Khrushchev bragged to the West that the USSR had successfully "hit a fly in the sky." In addition to 100 missile interceptors around Moscow permitted by the ABM Treaty, the Soviets also had some 9,000 dual purpose interceptors spread across their country. Russia's missile defenses have undergone half-a-dozen metamorphoses, with the latest version, the S-400, deployed only this spring.
President Bush's proposed system would be a major step away from the self-delusion of policies based upon MAD. The core of the system scheduled for 2004 is land-based interceptors stationed at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. These interceptors will be armed with the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), which detects and moves to collide with an incoming missile at incredible speeds. Although the most recent test on December 11 failed due to a relatively minor problem with the missile's booster, the previous four tests were successful. Work on the Fort Greeley test bed is also two months ahead of schedule.
The land-based system is the most complex, precisely because it must intercept the missile in mid-course, when it is moving most quickly through the blackness of space. The land-based system would, however, be integrated eventually into a layered framework. The development of the other elements is proceeding apace, including a sea-based system, an improved version of the Patriot Missile, and, finally, the air-borne laser. The Alaska system would play a central role as a defense against North Korea's Taepo Dong II, capable of reaching America's western coast. Given North Korea's recent indication of its intention to resume missile testing, Bush's announcement could not be more timely.
The future of missile defense looks promising. Much work remains. The constitutional duty to protect the nation against attack and preserve domestic tranquility, however, permits us no other alternative.