On Friday, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty will formally be consigned to the dust-bin of history. With its passing, a document that was designed -- and proved -- to be an insuperable obstacle to developing and deploying effective protection against missile attack for the American people and their homeland will cease to have that effect.
Thanks to the vision, leadership and deftness of George W. Bush and his national security team, this transforming event has been achieved without appreciable diplomatic upset or, to date, effective congressional opposition .
Now things should get interesting.
After all, it will fall to Mr. Bush from here on actually to achieve that which he has promised to do and that which he has made possible by exercising America’s right to withdraw from the ABM Treaty -- namely, actually putting a missile defense in place.
To be sure, a step in that direction will be taken on Friday, when -- not coincidentally -- ground-breaking is scheduled to begin in Alaska on the construction of five silos intended to house anti-missile interceptors. Yet this initiative, intended to provide a test bed that can double as a stop-gap defensive capability, is clearly inadequate.
For example, even if the Alaska system becomes fully operational at an expanded 20-interceptor level, it would enable protection of only parts of the United States against incoming missiles, and no more than a handful at that. Other areas could be attacked by shorter-range missiles launched from ships off the United States’ East and Gulf coasts with little, if any, probability of interception.
Similarly, the Alaska site would do nothing to alleviate the grave danger American forces overseas presently face from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Ditto U.S. allies now in the cross-hairs from missiles proliferating into the hands of many of the world’s most dangerous nations.
The challenge Mr. Bush and his subordinates thus face is three-fold:
1) The President must direct the most urgent possible deployment of complementary anti-missile weapons that will augment the capabilities of the Alaska ground-based system and offset some of its inherent weaknesses. Of these, clearly the most cost-effective and -- if properly executed -- nearest-term would be a sea-based program using the Navy’s existing Aegis fleet air defense assets.
If accorded the proper priority and resources, populated areas in proximity to American coasts, forward-deployed U.S. forces and this country’s allies could begin to come under a limited naval missile defense umbrella before the end of the President’s first term. (In fact, had the advice of the
Heritage Foundation been followed since 1995, when a blue-ribbon commission it sponsored first called for withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and pursuit of Aegis-evolved missile defenses, such protection would likely have been put into place before now.)
2) For such presidential direction to be actualized, however, the Administration must ensure that the people charged with executing it fully share Mr. Bush’s commitment to defend the American people, their forces overseas and allies against missile attack -- and are no less determined than he is to get the job done at the earliest possible moment. Particularly critical is the choice of the director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
For the past three years, that post has been held by Air Force Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish. All other things being equal, Gen. Kadish would be expected in the near future to assume a new assignment and fourth star, or be forced to retire. It would be a mistake, though, to relieve him of his present responsibilities at this juncture. While there have been grounds for criticizing the General’s tenure at the MDA, most appear to have been a function of the arms control, political and/or programmatic constraints within which he has been forced to operate. Overall, he vindicated and reinforced in the Missile Defense Agency job the reputation he had previously earned as an exacting and highly competent program manager.
Thanks in no small measure to Gen. Kadish’s leadership, engineering challenges and quality control problems that have plagued the development of successive hit-to-kill anti-missile systems have been largely overcome. An impressive string of successful tests have disproved critics’ claims that such weapons were technically impossible. There is much to be said for continuing such leadership -- provided it is equipped with the right marching orders and there is an end to obstructionism from some congressional quarters and periodic programmatic garrotting in the form of Pentagon micromanagement.
3) With respect to the last point, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- a man who has done as much as any to make the case for missile defense and to create the conditions whereby it can be realized -- has already taken an important step. In a letter sent to legislators last week, he vowed to recommend a presidential veto if legislative language and spending cuts promoted by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin were approved. He should now take steps to ensure that bureaucrats in his own Acquisition organization do not achieve through red-tape and other machinations the hamstringing of Mr. Bush’s effort to end our vulnerability to missile attack so assiduously sought by Sen. Levin.
If President Bush now builds on his tremendous accomplishment of ending the obsolete and dangerous ABM Treaty regime, he will ensure that he is pursuing a defense of the American homeland that is as comprehensive as it needs to be. If he does so in the ways outlined above, he may just do it before he the end of his present term in office and, more importantly, before such defenses are required.