Fifteen years ago on March 23, President Reagan announced that America would build a shield against Soviet missiles, but it was Reagan's domestic critics who went ballistic.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., derided Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative as "Star Wars," conjuring up images of moon-sized Death Stars zapping enemy rockets and squadrons of X-wing fighters prowling the stratosphere for incoming warheads. Reagan's 1984 challenger, Walter Mondale, charged that SDI would cost more than $1 trillion. Even some normally sober conservatives swallowed hard: Columnist George Will, for example, predicted that SDI would be "the most expensive public project in history."
Some of the skepticism, of course, was justifiable. The original SDI concept was a nebula of exotic ideas involving satellites, lasers, interceptors and other futuristic technologies. With no certain blueprint for missile defense (though The Heritage Foundation had proposed a detailed plan a year earlier) and sci-fi jargon abounding, no cost guess seemed too high.
No longer is that true. Foes of national missile defense may persist in the mistaken belief that such a defense is unneeded or that it would increase tensions with the Russians. But they cannot make a credible argument on cost. By the year 2003, the United States could mount an effective, mobile missile defense that would protect all 50 states as well as American troops abroad and the territory of America's allies - all for an estimated $1.5 billion-to-$2 billion per year over five years.
This could be done by putting interceptor missiles on the Navy's already-at-sea Aegis cruisers and linking the missiles' guidance systems to already-in-orbit sensors. The Navy has spent $50 billion on the Aegis, which can simultaneously track and "kill" more than 100 targets - airplanes, ships and subs. With a modest supplemental investment, America could possess a globe-spanning defensive network that could knock down medium- and long-range missiles as well.
Nor would it matter who fired the missiles - one of the 20 Third World nations like Iraq or North Korea that have, or soon will have, weapons of mass destruction, or Russian missile-keepers who misread their radar, or Chinese militarists of the sort who publicly mused not too long ago that the incineration of Los Angeles would be a high price for Uncle Sam to pay to defend Taiwan.
An upgraded Aegis system would be a wise investment in two ways:
Missile defense would be cheaper than pre-emptive attacks on rogue states. The price of the recent U.S. buildup to force Iraq to undergo a nuclear-biological frisk may hit $1 billion - without a shot fired. A second Desert Storm would have cost at least $7 billion. More and more, America will be required to disarm outlaw states before they can use their new holocaust toys - unless missile defense makes them useless.
The worst squandering of missile-defense dollars occurs when systems are kept forever "in development." Since 1983, the United States has spent about $50 billion on the SDI program (now called Ballistic Missile Defense or BMD). Critics charge that we have nothing to show for this vast outlay. Yet those same critics are the ones who have blocked deployment of any defensive system. This is a cute way to make sure missile defense is researched to death. The intelligent alternative to this stalling game is to field something workable now - e.g., Aegis-based interceptors - and gradually upgrade it as we do other advanced weapons.
Darth Vader and Princess Leia are out of the debate. The cost of an effective missile defense - less than 1 percent of projected defense budgets for the next five years - is small. Those who think America and its allies are immune from cataclysmic attack should rub the stars from their eyes. The only thing we cannot afford is continued complacency.