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February 16, 2016 6:13 am

America Must Improve Its National Missile-Defense Program

avatar by John Bolton

Iran's Shahab 1 missile. Photo: Hosein Velayati/ Wiki Commons.

Iran’s Shahab 1 missile. Photo: Hosein Velayati/ Wiki Commons.

North Korea launched its second Earth satellite last Sunday, underscoring its continuing progress toward deliverable nuclear weapons. Coming just a month after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test, these developments confirm recent predictions of US and South Korean military commanders that North Korea is growing increasingly capable of hitting targets on America’s West Coast with nuclear weapons.

America’s humiliating surrender to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program — embodied in the Vienna deal signed last summer and now being implemented — adds to the threat of rogue states acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran is being freed from international economic sanctions and is gaining access to more than $100 billion of previously frozen assets that could help bankroll its nuclear project or support international terrorism.

Undoubtedly, the United States is a potential target for these dangerous regimes. To protect our innocent civilians from the threat of nuclear terrorism, America should immediately ramp up its national missile-defense program. While countering the long-term threat of nuclear proliferation will require substantial international politico-military efforts, building an effective national missile-defense system against the rogue states lies entirely in our hands.

Unfortunately, there is no chance our national missile-defense program can be rescued before Jan. 20, 2017. Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have never really supported national missile defense, believing bizarrely that it made America less safe. They opposed President George W. Bush’s successful efforts to withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty. Opposing national missile defense is a delusion with deep roots in Cold War arms-control theology. It didn’t make sense then, and it makes less sense now.

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Paradoxically, many opponents of “national” missile defense, embodied in the ABM Treaty, nonetheless supported “theater” missile-defense to protect deployed U.S. forces globally, as well as allies in NATO, Japan and South Korea. Obama, with Clinton’s full backing, set about gutting Bush’s small-scale national missile-defense program, including abandoning radar and missile-launch projects in Poland and the Czech Republic that would protect America, substituting theater missile defense programs to protect Europe.

Obama thereby left our country vulnerable to Iranian ICBM’s. By contrast, Ronald Reagan created his “Strategic Defense Initiative,” or SDI, believing deeply that exposing civilians to nuclear annihilation was immoral, whatever the supposed strategic rationale for the Cold War doctrine of “mutual assured destruction.”

The imperative to protect America is just as high today when the potential aggressors are rogue states rather than the USSR. The rogue states’ capabilities might not yet be militarily significant, but they could readily use their warheads as threats for blackmail and extortion purposes. In this century, President Bush saw that missile defenses national in their geographic scope — but intended to deal with threats significantly smaller than a Cold War-level exchange of nuclear salvoes with the Soviets — was increasingly urgent. Bush understood that rogue states could use even small nuclear arsenals to hold us hostage, and that defenses against such threats were both feasible and necessary in a world where nuclear proliferation was spreading rapidly.

He envisaged building US capabilities that could protect against incoming strikes from “handfuls, not hundreds” of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Thus, while derived from Reagan’s SDI, the objective and actual size of Bush’s program was considerably smaller.

North Korea’s satellite launch should thus be a powerful incentive to resurrect national missile defense from the early grave intended by the Obama administration. Politicians might generally be slow learners, but one bedrock reality of public opinion is that Americans actually expect their government to protect them from foreign threats. National missile defense was a winning policy for George W. Bush in 2000, and it can be again in 2016 for the same reasons.

Moreover, broader strategic realities have changed since the Cold War ended 25 years ago. Russia has lost for the foreseeable future its chance for free, representative government and has returned to a non-ideological authoritarianism that prizes power politics, including at the nuclear level.

China is expanding and modernizing its nuclear and ballistic missile forces, particularly by building greater sea-launch capabilities that would be much harder to detect and defend against. While revitalizing Bush’s limited national missile-defense concept now, we should not ignore the possible need later to enhance our defense capabilities to something closer to Reagan’s SDI.

Bush’s program itself contemplated being able to defend against “accidental” or unintended launches from Russia and China, thus providing a foundation to defend against larger strikes by expanding the program.

In 2014, Americans were rightly outraged when they saw pictures of ISIS beheading innocent Americans in Syria. That barbarity was far away and incomparably less devastating than the death and devastation that would occur if a US city were struck by a nuclear warhead. National missile defense is a strategic winner and, persuasively articulated, a 2016 political winner for the candidate who raises its banner.

This article was originally published by The Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

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