Real Missile Defense

A. Scott Piraino

We need missile defense. The threat from emerging nuclear powers is real and growing. But as the terrorist attacks of September 11th have shown, missiles are not the only means an enemy has to strike at us.

Last December President Bush ordered a missile defense system to be activated by September 30th, 2004. Prior to issuing that order, the Bush administration had released contingency plans to attack seven nations in the event of a nuclear emergency. Since then events have rapidly spun out of control.

Recently the North Korean regime admitted that they were producing nuclear weapons, and they already have missiles that can reach Alaska, and US bases in Japan and Okinawa. Nor can we ignore China’s growing arsenal. Thanks to technology transfers during the Clinton administration and theft of US nuclear weapon designs, China is now deploying the DF-31. This mobile missile has a one megaton warhead and a range of 5000 miles, making it capable of hitting the US.

In response the Pentagon has proposed an elaborate, multi-tiered missile shield. Total cost will be near 50 billion dollars when the entire system is deployed in 2026. The Clinton and Bush administrations have already spent over 30 billion dollars on development and testing. After all this, the missile system has failed three out of eight attempted intercepts.

A recent General Accounting Office report warns that the Pentagon plans to field an untested system that relies on unproven technology. But the GAO report does not go far enough. While the US squanders billions on a dubious missile shield, cheaper alternative systems are ignored.

Israel is the only nation with a missile defense shield in place. After eight successful intercepts in nine attempts, the Arrow missile has been deployed by the Israeli Air Force. This system was developed in the United States for less than three billion dollars, with US taxpayers paying over half of the cost.

Although the Arrow system is designed to intercept shorter range missiles like those deployed by North Korea, the Arrow can be deployed now. For a fraction of what the Pentagon has already spent on missile defense, this system could already be protecting Alaska, and our armed forces in Asia. In addition, since the Arrow uses more proven technology, increasing the missile’s range would be a more cost effective solution.

But the most promising technology for missile defense is not a missile at all. The Airborne Laser, or ABL, is a modified Boeing 747 with a powerful laser mounted in the aircraft’s nose. Once operational, the ABL will be able to shoot down hostile missiles from hundreds of miles away.

This system promises not just defense but deterrence. The ABL will destroy hostile missiles much earlier in their flight, dropping the payload onto the aggressor’s own soil. Potential enemies contemplating a missile attack will face the prospect of their warheads detonating on their own territory.

Unfortunately, funding for the Airborne laser was not originally included in the budget for missile defense. Although developing the ABL has cost less than three billion dollars, the Air Force removed 800 million dollars from the program three years ago to fund the latest fighter aircraft. This has caused a delay in testing the first prototype. The first Airborne Laser was originally scheduled to shoot down a missile this year, now that test has been postponed until December of 2004.

Ultimately, all this talk about missile defense misses a crucial point. Missiles are just a means of delivery, the warheads they carry make them dangerous. We must defend our country against nuclear attack, not just missile attack.

No missile shield will prevent terrorists from smuggling nuclear bombs into our cities and detonating them.

In a study released after September 11th, the CIA acknowledged the increased threat from ballistic missiles, but concluded that terrorists using weapons of mass destruction was even more likely. Last month the Federal Government submitted an unclassified report to the UN security council. The report warned that there was a “high probability” Al-Qaeda terrorists will use WMD to attack the United States within the next two years.

During trail testimony in 1998, Al Qaeda members admitted trying to purchase weapons grade plutonium from Russia. In May of last year US authorities arrested an Al Qaeda terrorist for plotting to build a primitive bomb using nuclear material. Since the end of the Cold War there have been concerns about the safety of Russia’s weapon storage sites, and even rumors that nuclear warheads have disappeared.

Instead of making the security of these weapons a top priority, the Bush administration has reduced funding for a Department of Energy program that monitors Russia’s nuclear stockpile. The DoE is also responsible for detecting nuclear materials being smuggled into this country. The Nuclear Emergency Situation Team, or NEST, uses radiation detectors to locate and neutralize hidden atomic weapons. A program to develop more sensitive radiation detectors for NEST languished during the Clinton Administration, only to be resurrected after September 11th.

The threat of a nuclear attack against the United States is a gravely serious national security issue, but you wouldn’t know that by observing our defense priorities.

We could purchase the Arrow missile, fund the Airborne laser, and buy Russia’s surplus nuclear stockpile all for less money than the proposed national missile defense system. Unfortunately, these systems are not expensive enough to attract the attention of defense contractors. Instead the Pentagon bureaucracies plan to leisurely spend 50 billion dollars over the next twenty years on another expensive, useless boondoggle.

We don’t have twenty years to purchase a missile defense system that may not even work. The United States faces new enemies, some of whom will stop at nothing to destroy us. A nuclear attack on our country either by enemy missile or terrorist bomb, is no longer a possibility, but a matter of when and where.

Published in: on October 20, 2003 at 6:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

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