American Enterprise Online
September 8, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd 

For a brief moment in the middle of August, the press stopped reporting about how the Bush and Kerry campaigns were handling the “he said, he said” minutiae of a war that ended thirty years ago, and instead highlighted a brief exchange between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry on an issue of growing and lasting importance for Americans and their allies: missile defense.  

According to Bush, who has committed over $7 billion this year to missile defenses, “Those who oppose this ballistic missile system don’t understand the threats of the 21st century.” The Kerry campaign countered by dismissing Bush as “preoccupied with missile defense.”  

Although Kerry supports the deployment of “a national missile defense which we know will work,” his campaign manifesto on national security advocates “reducing total expenditures on missile defense.” According to Kerry, “we must invest in missile defense, but not at the cost of other pressing priorities." A Reuters report estimates that Kerry would cut the program by $3.5 billion annually. One wonders how a malnourished missile-defense system could ever pass Kerry’s high standards for deployment.  

In promising to divert resources away from missile defense, Kerry may find himself in lonely territory. That’s because politics, proliferation, and diplomacy have legitimized missile defense in America and de-stigmatized it elsewhere.

First, the politics. Missile defense is no longer the sole domain of Cold Warriors or the “far-right fringe.” In fact, in the last five years, missile defense has gone mainstream. According to some polls, the American people support it by a two-to-one margin. And in this age of terror, as mass murderers scramble to build and buy weapons of mass destruction, not even the $70-billion price tag has dissuaded American taxpayers. With an innate sense of wisdom, they have concluded that taking an economic risk on a system with a 50-percent or even 10-percent success rate is far better than doing nothing—and thus guaranteeing a 0-percent success rate, a 0-percent chance of shielding one of their cities from an accidental launch or intentional attack.

Plus, they realize that the “missile defense or other priorities” argument is a false choice. The United States has the resources to pursue a range of national-security goals; and missile defense should be one of them.  

Even before September 11 awakened America to its vulnerabilities, President Bill Clinton recognized that missile defense was a winner politically. Although he was an early critic of the program, Clinton earmarked about $3 billion annually for missile defense, as Slate magazine discovered after trolling Pentagon records. And in 2000, he signed legislation, albeit reluctantly, that poured $2 billion in new spending into the program, paved the way for deployment in the first half of this decade, and focused attention on rogue missile threats.  

It can never be said that Clinton was a missile-defense advocate, of course. After all, he hid behind the ABM Treaty for half his presidency, citing murky intelligence estimates to reassure Americans that rogue missiles were nothing more than a distant threat. He could have done more, of course, but he could have done less or worse, too. In the end, he followed the Hippocratic Oath when it came to missile defense: he did no harm—or perhaps better said, he didn’t do too much harm. 

Hence, Bush was able to accelerate the program upon his arrival in Washington. After convincing Moscow that the system wouldn’t upset the US-Russia deterrent balance, he scrapped the anachronistic ABM Treaty, made formal requests for assistance to key allies, and shifted missile-defense development into high gear.  

The Pentagon started deploying the first of six interceptor silos in Alaska in July. An additional four interceptors will be based in California by the end of October, with ten more missile-killers set for deployment in 2005. Air-borne lasers and sea-based missiles will make up other layers of the system. 

Elements of the ground-based system will be activated sometime this month—and not a moment too soon: Proliferation of medium- and long-range missile technology—and of the WMDs that might become payloads—is rampant.  

Some 25 countries have or are developing long-range missilery. North Korea and Iran, with their twin terror programs that seek to match rockets with nukes, top that list. Those other countries may lack Pyongyang and Tehran’s capabilities, but many of them are pursuing the same grim goals—to gain the capacity to blackmail, divide or strike the world’s democracies. 

In the shadow of this missile threat, it’s no surprise that Washington has been able to gather a broad coalition of allies to the international missile defense (IMD) cause. 

The IMD coalition is built around a strong transatlantic core, with Britain agreeing in 2003 to software and hardware upgrades of existing ground-based radar stations at Fylingdales. Once used to scan the skies for Soviet bombers, the base will now be used to peer over the European horizon and into Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean borderlands, watching for accidental or rogue missile launches.  

In August, Denmark approved similar technology upgrades at radar and satellite-tracking stations in Thule, Greenland. Likewise, Canada has authorized the use of NORAD to support the IMD system. The Polish and Czech governments are negotiating with Washington on the deployment of radar stations and perhaps even interceptors on their soil.  

Japan and Australia serve as the coalition’s key pillars in the Pacific. Canberra’s IMD contribution includes monitoring and tracking stations in the deserts of central Australia. The Aussies, who have cemented their commitment to missile defense in the form of a 25-year deal with Washington, will also deploy Aegis anti-missile warships.  

Tokyo and Washington had been quietly cooperating on missile defense since the late 1990s, when North Korea began brandishing its rockets, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gave the go-ahead to begin constructing a Japanese missile-defense system. In August, the Japanese military leaked a request for a 35-percent increase in missile-defense spending. 

With lots of help from the US, Israel is already deploying its link in the IMD chain, the Arrow anti-missile system. Finally, India and the US are exploring how missile defense might stabilize the Asian subcontinent. 

Thus, a missile defense program once doomed to alienate Russia, isolate Washington and trigger another arms race, has blossomed into a multinational coalition that enjoys Moscow’s acquiescence, enfolds four continents, spans three oceans, and unites some of the world’s most pivotal and powerful states.  

Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be preoccupied with missile defense after all.