Serious about defending America

Posted: Dec 18, 2002 12:00 AM
Some good may yet come in the wake of the disastrous decision to permit North Korean ballistic missiles to reach Yemen -- a nation long supportive of international terrorism and still awash with al Qaeda operatives. This latest evidence of the accelerating, world-wide proliferation of delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction may contribute to a decision as early as today [Tuesday, 12/17] by President Bush to begin, at long last, the deployment of defenses against such missiles. The case for putting anti-missile defenses into place was underscored by this sobering fact: A ship like the North Korean vessel that was covertly carrying Scud B missiles and forcibly intercepted in the Arabian Sea last week could be steaming off the coast of the United States at this very moment. There are some 25,000 ships plying the world's oceans at any given time. Who are the real owners of many of these vessels is often unclear, as is the true nature of their cargoes. Is it possible, therefore, that one could be transporting a Scud-type missile -- loaded, not in its hold under sacks of concrete, but onto a transporter-erector-launcher -- and remain undetected as it moved within range of one of America's many littoral population centers? The limits of our maritime surveillance capabilities are such that we might not have any inkling of an attack until after the missile had been erected and launched. And, since we have no defense currently deployed in this country against even one such missile, there would be nothing we could do to stop it from arriving with deadly effect. Think this scenario implausible? Think again. The United States demonstrated the capability to launch a ballistic missile from a surface ship nearly forty years ago. Then, in 1998, the blue-ribbon Commission on Ballistic Missile Threats chaired by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned that others might seek such a capability. The bipartisan commission noted that, by so doing, nations without long-range missiles would nonetheless be able to attack the United States. And, on October 24th, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told a conference organized by Frontiers of Freedom think-tank that an unnamed "rogue state" was known to be interested in such an option. The episode with Yemen -- whose government had initially denied any knowledge of the North Korean missile shipment -- offers an even more alarming prospect: What if the rogue state enabled terrorists to get their hands on a missile and its launcher? As every day's headlines bring new reports of the deadly weapons programs of terrorist-sponsoring states (notably, Iraq, North Korea and Iran), it must be assumed that such a hand-me-down, sea-launched missile could be used to deliver a weapon of mass destruction to our shores. President Bush is reportedly poised to respond to this and other missile threats by ordering for the first time the deployment of missile defenses. While the details of his decision remain closely held, it appears that Mr. Bush will direct the Navy to modify ships equipped with the Aegis fleet air defense system so as to enable them to shoot down ballistic missiles. Three successive tests in recent months have demonstrated the inherent feasibility of this system. Thanks to the existing 60-ship Aegis infrastructure, it offers the fastest and least expensive way to begin defending the United States against the threat of ballistic missile attack. The mobility of these ships, moreover, enables them to be positioned to provide protection as needed to U.S. forces and allies overseas, as well. The President's decision will presumably also clear the way for other missile defense capabilities to be brought to bear as quickly as possible. These could involve ground-based anti-missile systems, airborne lasers and space-based sensors and, in due course, weapons (interceptors and directed energy). The most important thing is to begin putting defenses into place where they may be able to deter missile attacks, and to stop them if deterrence fails. Just as Mr. Bush concluded with respect to his difficult decision to allow the vaccination of all Americans against smallpox, under present wartime circumstances, it is more important to have some anti-missile capability -- even if it is imperfect -- than to remain completely vulnerable. The time has come to defend America. If President Bush decides to do so by swiftly beginning anti-missile deployments at sea, he will not only be responding appropriately to the threat posed by the ongoing proliferation of Scud and more capable ballistic missiles. He will, for the first, time be creating a real disincentive for actual and prospective enemies to invest precious resources in these delivery systems -- an invaluable new strategic tool for addressing and countering the North Korean regime, without having to wage war against it.