May 31, 1999

May 31, 1999 | Commentary on Missile Defense

America at Risk

According the recently released report of the Cox commission, Chinese spies have stolen a number of sophisticated U.S. nuclear secrets, including the design of our most advanced warhead, the W-88. It's a heist that places every American at risk.

Keep in mind that the Chinese already have nuclear missiles capable of destroying U.S. cities within minutes. Now they can make those missiles better.

Worst of all, the United States has no defense against missile attacks, either from China or the more than two dozen other countries pursuing advanced missile technology. For all our technological might, the United States-and its cities and people-are sitting ducks.

Yet polls show most Americans are unaware of this. In fact, many people believe we have some sort of missile defense. We don't.

If you want to know exactly what's going on here, pick up a copy of the new book, "America At Risk: The Citizen's Guide To Missile Defense." Written by my colleague James Anderson, the book explains-in plain, simple English-why we need a missile defense and how to develop such a system quickly and efficiently.

"Impoverished, unpredictable states like North Korea are developing missiles capable of striking American soil in less time than it takes to watch the evening news," Anderson writes. Just last year, North Korea tested the Taepo-Dong 1, a missile some experts say can reach Alaska or Hawaii. North Korea is now working on the Taepo-Dong 2, an even longer-range missile capable of hitting America's West Coast.

In fact, the technology needed to build city-leveling missiles has spread to more than two dozen nations, including such beacons of enlightenment as Iran, Iraq and Libya. Add in the possibility of accidental or unauthorized launches from Russia or China-which have missiles capable of hitting almost any American city within minutes-and the potential for disaster becomes clear.

So why aren't we building missile defenses right now? According to the Clinton administration, we can't because the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty we signed with the former Soviet Union forbids it. But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, along with any obligation the United States had to adhere to the ABM treaty.

Unfortunately, the president doesn't share this view. Although he says he supports missile defense, he insists the ABM treaty is still valid. But our continued allegiance to the treaty will make it impossible for us to adequately protect ourselves from missile attack.

That's not the only obstacle. Some critics say we shouldn't build missile defenses at all. It will never work, they say. Or it's too expensive. But the nay-sayers are wrong. With today's technology, it is both practical and affordable to defend ourselves against missiles. And with millions of lives in danger, how can we afford not to?

Congress recently passed the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, calling for a missile-defense system to be deployed "as soon as is technologically feasible." But we're not out of the woods yet. Under the legislation, the president would review the system's progress in June 2000 and only then decide whether to deploy it.

The good news is that at least missile defense has reclaimed its rightful place as a top national-security issue. The question is, now that we can defend ourselves, will we?

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

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