Navy Missile Defense Success Offers Bush a Chance to Issue a Challenge for the History Books

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(Washington, D.C.): Tomorrow night, President Bush has a chance to make not only a memorable speech, but an historic one. Thanks to an extraordinary event last Friday, Mr. Bush will have in his first State of the Union address the kind of opportunity John F. Kennedy seized so momentously four decades ago, challenging his countrymen to put a man on the moon in ten years’ time and setting in train the national effort needed to translate that epic vision into reality.

Bravo Zulu’ to Successful Navy Missileers

On January 25, the USS Lake Erie — a Navy cruiser equipped with the Aegis fleet air defense system — made history in its own right. It conducted the first flight test of an SM-3 missile, an interceptor rocket that successfully intercepted and destroyed a mock ballistic missile warhead high over the Pacific Ocean.

With this test, the promise of sea-based missile defenses has begun to be realized. If, as is now apparent, the existing Aegis infrastructure — comprised of some 61 ships in the fleet today and another 25 a-building — can be utilized to defeat ballistic missiles, the United States can relatively rapidly acquire a global anti-missile system. What is more, thanks to the roughly $60 billion already invested by the Navy in the Aegis program, it can do so at a fraction of the cost of other options for defending U.S. forces and allies overseas and the American people here at home against the present, and growing, danger of ballistic missile attack.

Why this Test Matters

Mr. Bush will doubtless speak to that danger tomorrow night, as he has on so many previous occasions. He has all the more reason to do so since a team of UN experts announced last week that the Taliban had as many as 100 Scud B ballistic missiles whose whereabouts today are unknown.

If such short-range missiles were fitted with weapons of mass destruction and launched from a ship off our coast — a danger identified in 1998 as real by the blue-ribbon Missile Threat Commission chaired by now-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — most of the Nation’s population centers could be at risk of devastating attack.

President Bush has previously and correctly observed that if terrorists have such a capability, they will doubtless try to use it. They and/or their state-sponsors clearly have the ballistic missiles. And they have, or have access to, ships that might be suitable for launching such missiles — for example, those suspected of helping al Qaeda operatives flee Southwest Asia, the one bearing Iranian arms to the Palestinian Authority and countless others flying flags of convenience.

The only near-term means of cost-effectively defending the American homeland and other potential targets against this threat is the widespread deployment of the SM-3 aboard Aegis ships. When combined with upgrades in these ships’ radars, fire-control and communications systems, their interceptor missiles will provide a degree of protection which we can no longer afford to be without. The introduction of such capabilities will facilitate, moreover, the further evolution and improvement of each subsystem so as to create ever better defenses against longer-range ballistic missiles.

A JFK-Like Challenge

Accordingly, President Bush should boldly use tomorrow night’s address to make a Kennedy- esque commitment: We will begin defending the American people against ballistic missile attack by the end of this year.

The President should acknowledge that the earliest deployments of sea-based anti-missile systems will inevitably be of somewhat limited capability, while pledging to improve them as rapidly as possible. By pointing to and building aggressively upon the success of the January 25th test, however, he can offer the public a practical, prudent approach to acquiring something that has, until now, been little more than a gleam in the eye — and that, until he withdrew last month from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, was actually prohibited: a missile defense for the United States of America.

As with Kennedy’s moon program, a Bush missile defense challenge will not be realized if a business-as-usual approach is followed by those charged with its implementation. The authority and responsibility for a streamlined acquisition effort must be given to individuals who fully share the President’s commitment and who respect the legal requirement to defend the American people “as soon as is technologically possible.” It cannot be entrusted to those who have, at least until last Friday, deprecated, dumbed-down or otherwise impeded the development of sea-based missile defenses. (A particularly egregious example of such obstructionism was the unexpected decision one day after Mr. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty to terminate a shorter-range version of ship-borne defenses, known as the Navy Area Missile Defense program — even though $2 billion had been invested in bringing it to fruition and only six-weeks remained before its own flight-testing was to begin.)

The Bottom Line

George W. Bush is committed to defending our country and its citizens against the array of dangers we confront in the war on terrorism. He deserves our strong support in this effort. And, as JFK did with his challenge forty years ago, this President will get the best of American ingenuity, innovation and achievement if he calls on the people of this great nation to start putting into place by year’s end the missile defense we all so urgently require.

Center for Security Policy

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