Two amazing things happened in the aftermath of President Bush’s visionary and courageous decision to withdraw from 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
First, contrary to the confident predictions of many so-called “experts,” the sky remained in its place. Russian President Putin called the Bush action a mistake, but did not launch nuclear Armageddon or otherwise respond aggressively. In fact, he observed that it would not threaten Russia’s security and that U.S.-Russian relations should continue “at the same level.”
For its part, China mildly groused, but there was no talk of breaking off diplomatic -- let alone commercial -- relations with the United States. As for our allies, the worst of their reaction was confined to mild tut-tutting.
In other words, the concerted and sustained campaign to intimidate the United States into remaining within a treaty that prohibited the development and deployment of effective anti-missile defenses is now seen for what it always was: a flim-flam operation whose fraudulent character should have been exposed and rejected years ago. The upshot of our having failed to do that before now is that this country has been left vulnerable to the real and growing danger of ballistic missile-backed blackmail and/or attack.
The Kremlin’s exceedingly muted reaction has left the few congressional Democrats who have publicly assailed Mr. Bush (notably, Senators Tom Daschle, Joe Biden and Carl Levin) in the unhappy position of being holier than the Pope -- professing more concern about how badly the Russians would take this than the Russians themselves were actually taking it. The foolishness of this stance may be why so few of the Senators’ colleagues are publicly following their lead. In fact, after the withdrawal notification was announced, Congress authorized full-funding for the President’s missile defense budget.
In short, President Bush has now succeeded in creating legal, diplomatic and political conditions that give him essentially complete latitude in pursuing and putting into place the missile defenses he has so clearly recognized are needed now.
This makes all the more amazing the second thing that happened after Mr. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty on Thursday. On Friday, a small coterie of civilian Pentagon officials decided to cancel the Navy’s short-range Area Missile Defense program. As a result, the Navy will be sent back to the drawing board, postponing -- perhaps by years -- the day when forward-deployed U.S. amphibious forces and naval battle groups will have any protection against the danger currently posed to them by widely proliferated ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
Predictably, missile defense critics -- reeling from the body blow delivered by the President’s disposing of their cherished “cornerstone of strategic stability” -- were euphoric. They chided the Defense Department, saying if it could not do something as relatively easy as building short-range anti-missile systems, it certainly couldn’t build more complex defenses against longer-range ballistic missiles. And they claimed vindication in asserting that the President had not needed to abandon the ABM Treaty at this juncture since no developing missile defenses were ready to bump up against the Treaty’s limitations.
Regrettably, giving comfort to the President’s political opponents is the least of the reasons why it was a mistake to terminate the Navy Area Missile Defense at this juncture. While this short-range anti-missile system has experienced both considerable cost growth and schedule slippage, it was described just last August by the now-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, as “essential to national security.” He declared that “a robust, sea-based, lower-tier theater ballistic missile defense capability, found in the Navy Area Missile Defense Program, is critical to reducing operational risk to the warfighter.” Of particular relevance to the Friday decision, Gen. Myers’ letter stated that, “There are no alternatives to this program that would provide equal or greater military capability at less cost.”
This assessment was foreshadowed in a letter sent to the Joint Chiefs Chairman in January by the Chief of Naval Operations and Marine Corps Commandant. They emphasized “the critical importance of early deployment of Navy Area Missile Defense capability. Navy Area is the number one priority of the Navy and Marine Corps among the different Theater Missile Defense systems.” The Chairman was urged to “ensure that Navy Area capability is available to the Joint Force Commander at the earliest possible moment” and pledged that “we will do all in our power to ensure its effective deployment.”
Unfortunately, these strong arguments for proceeding with the Navy Area system were not persuasive to the small group of civilian officials led by Under Secretary of Defense E.C. “Pete” Aldridge. Perhaps that is because these senior military officers were not given an opportunity to make their case when the decision was being made. Indeed, they seemed to have been as surprised -- and appalled -- by the decision as was the President’s National Security Council staff.
Instead, the cancellation seems to have been largely driven by the recommendations of Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who heads the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. Gen. Kadish has gone out of his way under both the Clinton and Bush administrations to delay, dumb-down and otherwise impede the most promising options for near-term missile defense: short- and long-range anti-missile systems based on the Navy’s existing $60 billion Aegis fleet air defense infrastructure.
To his great credit, President Bush has now created the opportunity for the U.S. military to finish the development and begin the deployment of effective missile defenses. If that opportunity is to be fully exploited, however, he will need to direct the Pentagon to test the Navy Area system as planned in February, press vigorously ahead with other, more capable sea-based anti-missile systems and entrust the management of such programs to those who will deploy -- not cancel -- the defenses we need.