Asked about the chances our ballistic missile defense had to shoot down the North Korean ICBM launched on July Fourth President Bush said, “I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down.” He added, “Our anti-ballistic missile systems are modest, they’re new, they’re new research, we’re testing them. And so…it’s hard for me to give you a probability of success.” Mr. Bush — not a big fan of the Keller Kidz’ leakathon — was probably struggling to remember if that aspect of the ABM system was classified. He erred, as he should, on the side of protecting classified information. And so shall we.
But we can say — as open sources have — that our ship-borne ABM (the “Standard” missile series carried aboard Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers) are rated at .5, while the ground-based interceptor missiles are rated at .6. Translating from engineering to English, that means the ship-borne system has a 50-50 chance of success, and the other has a 60-40 chance. Twenty-three years ago, Ronald Reagan proclaimed our intent to protect ourselves from the threat of nuclear missile attack. He said, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them? Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability?…Tonight, consistent with our obligations of the ABM treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I’m taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles….We seek neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose — one all people share — is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.”
That was March 23, 1983. So why, twenty-three years, three months and twenty-eight days later, don’t we have a ballistic missile defense that gives us better than a 60-40 chance to protect ourselves? Better ask Senator Carl Levin.
Though Teddy hung the “Star Wars” label on it to ridicule it as science fiction, Levin has been the most dedicated opponent to ballistic missile defense since President Reagan announced it. First objecting to its costs, next as a defender of the ABM Treaty long after the other principal party to it ceased to exist, and last as a sarcastic unbeliever in its science, Levin has served as the brilliant general of the liberals determined to leave America defenseless. Steadfast in opposing any ballistic missile defense, Levin has thrown roadblock upon roadblock in its path, and slowed the program from a rush to a crawl.
North Korea has given us a free lesson. The tuition for the kind of lesson we should learn from its missile launches last week is usually paid in lives. Before we define what we learned, we must add a few more data points.
First, North Korea is held more dangerous as a proliferator of missiles and nuclear weapons than as a direct aggressor. Second, its nuclear weapons program would not have reached its current success without the technology delivered by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan and the support of Beijing. Third, without our direct intervention, and that of our allies, North Korea — or, more importantly, anyone with enough money to buy them from North Korea — will have ICBMs capable of hitting American and allied targets with nuclear weapons. Eventually some apocalyptic madman or some dictator convinced of some worse alternative will launch a nuclear-armed missile at us. The lesson we must take from the July 4th North Korean failure is that we must do whatever it takes to finish developing and deploying a comprehensive ballistic missile defense because we can no longer live without it.
The title of a July 7th Washington Examiner editorial asked, “where are [the] Star Wars critics now?” A better question is, “Where are the missile defense advocates?” They are nowhere to be seen. Republicans should be pressing for an immediate crash program to complete development and deployment of a complete, multi-layered ballistic missile defense system. And, at the same time, they should be trumpeting the history of Cozy Carl and the disarmers. But they are, as usual, asleep at the switch. Why all the pusillanimity?
Two reasons. First, as usual, Republicans have forgotten the Gipper’s art of argument and politics. Complaisance in power has numbed the mind. Second, they are scared of the bow wave that is about to swamp their pork-barrel skiff.
For more than a decade, we haven’t been buying now what we know we’ll need soon. By 1996, defense experts were forecasting a “bow wave” of essential spending that would soon swamp the military budget. Known essentials were ignored during the Great Period of Neglect (a.k.a. the Clinton glory) and haven’t been bought in the first six Bush years. Before 9-11, the Pentagon was too preoccupied with force transformation to battle Congress on accumulating problems. After 9-11 neither the Pentagon nor the White House has wanted to get into the zero-sum game of military budgeting that had lasted through the 1990s. Republican pork-barreling fed on itself, and the bow wave grew. Just how big is it? If you add up things like Air Force and Navy aircraft, replacing Navy combatant ships and other priorities, the number you quickly reach is about half a trillion dollars. If you add what’s needed to build a real ballistic missile defense, you can plan on a round trillion over the next five years.
No one in the Republican Congressional leadership or, apparently, the White House is willing to wade into the bow wave. Republicans need to face up to the fact that massive federal spending cuts are essential to pay for what we need. You can buy three new tanker aircraft for the money we waste every year on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Spare me the “he wants to kill Big Bird” baloney. We need to buy birds that can carry people, fuel and weapons, not pay the salaries of those that can sing and spell.
Someone — maybe Sen. Tim Coburn or Rep. Mike Pence — could take the lead in demanding decisive action on ballistic missile defense and the budget cuts to pay for it. They, almost alone, have the budget-cutting credentials to take on their comrades and Carl Levin too. One source told me yesterday that North Korea is likely to launch another Taepodong-2C on about July 16th. This one, the source said, is expected to fly its whole ballistic arc unless U.S. interceptors destroy it in space. If our defense succeeds, one lesson will be taught. If it fails, the lesson will be quite another.
The Dems — especially the Clintonoids — always say their latest spending boondoggle is “for the children.” Why don’t we hear them — or any Republicans — say our children deserve to be defended? As you go to bed next Saturday, night, think about those 60-40 odds.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004) and, with Edward Timperlake, Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (Regnery, May 2006 — click here to obtain a free chapter).