Cliff May

National security hawks lost a battle last week when 71 members of the Senate -- not all of them Democrats -- voted to ratify New START. The treaty limits America’s non-nuclear long-range weapons. Its verification provisions are not as rigorous as those negotiated in the 1991 START treaty. And, perhaps most troubling, the Russians have made clear that they view the agreement as limiting America’s deployment of a comprehensive system of defenses against missile attacks.

President Obama insists that the treaty does not mandate such constraints. What’s more, he has gone on record, for the first time, unambiguously supporting missile defense. National security hawks – not all of them Republicans – should now ask him to back that up with funds for missile defense development, testing and deployment.

A world without nuclear weapons is a lovely dream but one that will not be realized during the lifetime of anyone reading this column. What is feasible in the foreseeable future: a world in which aggressors know that America has the means to prevent missiles armed with nuclear warheads from reaching their intended victims.

In September, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) offered an amendment to the resolution to ratify New START that would have committed the U.S. to exactly this goal: deploying “as rapidly as technology permits an effective and layered missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States and its allies against all ballistic missile attacks."

Why would anyone oppose that? During the Cold War, we relied on MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. The idea was that so long as both we and the Soviets left ourselves vulnerable, neither would see benefit in being the first to strike. Proponents of “strategic deterrence” argue that the doctrine served us well then and that it would be a mistake to abandon it now.

I would argue that MAD was not crazy – not at a time when effective missile defense was barely a twinkle in Ronald Reagan’s eye and the Soviet Union, though an evil empire, was not an irrational one. Soviet rulers did not believe that martyrs for Communism would be greeted in Paradise by black-eyed virgins or that an apocalypse would summon the Mahdi (the Islamic messiah) from occultation.

This, too, has changed: Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, American scientists have made astonishing progress in missile defense technology. Not long ago there were those who insisted it was impossible to hit a bullet with a bullet. Now we have the means to hit a spot on a bullet. And much additional progress can be achieved if we will make the necessary investments in such technologies as the ABL, an aircraft-based laser that could be flown near potential ballistic-missile launch locations.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.