Why Stay Vulnerable?

Posted: May 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Sports fans often cite the clich?The best defense is a good offense,? but it?s not true. Teams that want to win need both.

No one doubts that the United States has the best offense in the world. Just weeks after 9/11, our military went to war in Afghanistan. Some said it would be a quagmire. After all, during the 1980s the Soviet Union was bogged down for years in Afghanistan and eventually withdrew in defeat.
But our troops won an overwhelming victory in a matter of weeks.

The same thing is true in Iraq. Our military swept forward so quickly the opposition seemingly melted away. Within weeks Saddam Hussein disappeared into his hole in the ground, the war was over and the rebuilding process was under way.

In fact, whether we?re talking about weapons systems, personnel, equipment or any other measure, there?s never been a military as offensively dominant as ours is today. And nobody is likely to catch up for decades.

But that dominance carries a price. Because no nation can beat us on the battlefield, our enemies are drawn to non-conventional weapons. That?s why al Qaeda?s terrorists hijacked airliners and turned them into weapons of mass destruction. And it?s why, some day, a rogue nation or terror group may decide to strike with a ballistic missile. We need a good defense, so we?ll be ready if that attack comes. Yet, today it?s impossible for us to shoot down even a single incoming missile.

This is hardly an idle threat.

The Central Intelligence Agency says North Korea already has a ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States. Pyongyang also boasts of a growing nuclear program -- and that?s a dangerous combination for any American living on the west coast. The International Atomic Energy Agency indicates North Korea has sold excess uranium to Libya. North Korea also exports its missile technology: Syria and Iran, among others, have purchased weapons from Pyongyang?s ?Dear Leader? Kim Jung Il.

Elsewhere, Pakistan is expected to test a long-range ballistic missile in June. China has at least a dozen nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at the U.S. And the end of the Cold War helped spread Russian missile technology around the globe.

Our two oceans no longer provide the safety cushion they once did. Luckily, the first pieces of a national missile defense will be in place by year?s end. The military will deploy 10 long-range missile interceptors in Alaska and California this summer. These are designed to knock down incoming warheads while they are still in flight.

The overall system is still in the testing stage, of course. In 14 tests conducted in 2002 and 2003, long- and short-range interceptors have taken out 11 target missiles. Deploying these 10 interceptors will help us work the bugs out of the overall missile-defense screen and offer some defense against possible attack. Remember -- until the interceptors are activated, we have a 0 percent chance of blocking an attack. If a warhead were heading for Los Angeles, we wouldn?t even have time to evacuate, let alone bring it down.

Plus, these interceptors are merely a start. The military also is working on a system of land- and sea-based interceptors, which will destroy enemy missiles during their ?boost phase,? when they?re moving more slowly.
We?re also working on a third layer of defense, which would target any missiles that survived the first two attempts to shoot them down.

All of this will cost money, of course. The Bush administration is asking Congress for about $10 billion to fund missile defense next year. That seems like a lot, but it?s actually only about 3 percent of the entire $422 billion defense budget.

Most of our spending still will be devoted to offense, to ensure the United States maintains the best fighting force on the planet. And we?ll have the best defense as well. Now, there?s a winning combination.