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On Point

ABM Treaty Bites the Dust


by Austin Bay

With President Bush's May Day call for a capable missile defense system, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty now joins the USSR and its Iron Curtain in the bone heap of has-beens.

Good riddance. The political order the ABM treaty helped structure began to die two decades ago. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the Cold War formulation the ABM treaty framed, was aptly named -- an edge-of-oblivion strategy resting on the most dreadful of options, a thermonuclear exchange.

It's 2001, strategic threats have changed, and it's time for America to prepare to confront a new array of challenges.

In 1972, a treaty curbing ABM deployment had economic and political logic. The thousands of warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in superpower arsenals would have overwhelmed 1972-era defensive systems.

With the Cold War's demise and the acquisition of missile technology by Third World warlords, the logic of 1972 has become a dangerous delusion. The threat posed by outlaw states capable of firing a "pulse" of a dozen ballistic missiles is demonstrated fact, not fantasy.

Saddam waged a missile war in 1991, albeit an ineffective campaign. He did demonstrate the will to use the weapons. The escalating rogue threat became more apparent in August 1998, when North Korea tested a three-stage ballistic missile. One stage splashed down west of Japan, the others plopped into the Pacific. The immediate message from Pyongyang to Tokyo: You're bracketed. The message to Washington: We're ranging Hawaii, with Los Angeles the next bulls-eye.

Pyongyang's launch demonstrated that the United States -- like our allies in Europe, like Japan, like the rest of the world -- is vulnerable to rogue missile attack, and it's utterly false to argue otherwise. It meant U.S. diplomacy and the U.S. economy are potential hostages to missile blackmail by regional tinpots. Astute military analysts concluded Washington had approximately five years to develop and begin to deploy an ABM system capable of stopping a pulse of up to a half-dozen ballistic missiles.

The Clinton administration, left-wing doves fossilized in Cold War amber, dithered, then ducked the ABM deployment issue, wasting three precious years.

May Day, 2001. The Pentagon is now preparing a "preliminary missile defense system" for deployment sometime in 2004.

Though a big-league challenge, the goal can be achieved -- if President Bush provides the political weight and leadership required to focus U.S. capabilities.

Yes, terrorists pose a significant problem. That requires improving intelligence and counter-terror capabilities. But ignore the TV squawk-show naysayers. America does possess the technological means and military organizations to deploy an effective "thin-shield" national missile defense.

As an Army reserve officer, a citizen who occasionally wears a uniform, I spent four years assigned to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). I had the privilege of watching BMDO test prototypes of the military intelligence and combat organizations it takes to fight a 21st century anti-missile battle. In one exercise at Ft. Bliss, Texas, the regulars let the reservist take temporary control of what amounted to a joint "space warfare brigade," circa 2010. Though the ballistic missile attacks were (thank God) simulated, the ABM batteries in the New Mexican desert, the Navy Aegis cruiser in Norfolk (linked by satellite) and the target acquisition components were real-world technology manned by real-world troops.

We were fighting a "theater war," against SCUD-type missiles aimed at U.S. units overseas, not ICBMs heading for the U.S. mainland. However, the military, intelligence and command capabilities used in the exercise are the building blocks of an integrated, effective national defense.

My BMDO experience underscored several truths missile-defense advocates and responsible critics acknowledge. Hitting a bullet with a bullet is a tough mission. The technology is expensive. You must test the technology, thoroughly. I also concluded removing 1972 treaty restrictions on space-based targeting would dramatically improve current and projected ABM capabilities.

U.S. ABM technology is maturing. The Patriot PAC-3, a vast improvement on the Gulf War's Patriot PAC-2 missile, has demonstrated hit-to-kill capability against both ballistic-missile and cruise-missile targets. Advanced Navy Aegis ABM systems will soon give U.S. military commanders a flexible anti-theater ballistic missile capability. My favorite BMDO weapon, the USAF Force Airborne Laser, an aerial ray gun, is on the verge of making Darth Vader jealous.

What that means for the American people is a safer America.

If the Bush administration pursues multi-national anti-missile defense as part of a new collective security regimen, it will make for a safer planet.

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