Salena Zito

Missile defense has been a political issue since President Reagan introduced his plan to win the arms race by rebuilding our arsenal while using technology to prevent a successful Russian nuclear attack against us.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., dismissed Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as "Star Wars."

Yet Reagan appealed to Americans' common sense in a 1983 speech: "What if free people could live secure in the knowledge ... that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil?"

SDI is now the Ballistic Missile Defense program. Its mission is to defend our forces and allies against all ballistic missile threats, short- and long-range, according to Christopher Taylor of the Missile Defense Agency, part of the Defense Department.

As of week's end, the program's budget was set to be cut.

With the devotion of Iran's leaders to nuclear technology, with Pakistan's instability and North Korea's erratic behavior, clearly we should have a fully functional missile defense system, former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told the Trib, "not a budget cut."

In other words, right now is not really a good time to reduce monies on long-range missiles when we have long-range problems.

Last year, Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, led by Strategic Forces subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California, considerably reduced missile defense funding: for fiscal year 2009, by roughly $500 million; for 2008, by more than $700 million.

In the 2010 budget, the Obama administration cut missile defense by $1.2 billion. According to Defense Department documentation, this program restructuring is intended to focus on rogue-state and theater missile threats.

As a general rule, liberal Democrats who control the federal purse believe the only near-term threat comes from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

The Obama administration believes a Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) is sufficient to address rogue-nation threats -- although it is reducing deployment of interceptors (from a planned 44 to 30), halting construction of a missile field in Alaska and curtailing further development.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.