November 30, 2001

November 30, 2001 | Commentary on Missile Defense

Let's Bury this Relic

"No progress on ABM Treaty," blared the headlines as President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin departed the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Those of us who want America to build a missile-defense system as soon as possible missed out on what would have been a fantastic early Christmas present -- withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty or its more-than-timely demise.

But "no progress" is better than the disaster that could have unfolded in Texas.

Yes, the United States will continue to abide by the obsolete treaty at least for a little while longer, despite the fact that one of its two signatories, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist in 1991. That's the bad news.

The good news is, we didn't foreclose the possibility that we will withdraw from the treaty in the near future, and we didn't agree to some half-baked scheme that would permit us to continue testing some of our more-advanced radars and interceptors until the Russians cry "foul."

Signed in 1972, the ABM Treaty prohibits the United States and the Soviet Union from testing or deploying a national missile-defense system. Despite the demise of our treaty partner, America continues to honor the treaty's provisions and even employs a team of attorneys at the Pentagon to ensure compliance.

But this can't go on much longer. We recently altered two critical missile-defense tests because those attorneys determined the tests would violate the treaty. We want to use two high-tech radars -- one in California, one on a ship -- to monitor the tests, so we can review what happens more closely and see what roles these radars can play in spotting incoming missiles and finding ways to shoot them down.

But under the ABM Treaty, these extra radars aren't allowed, so the next test won't include them.

It's a problem that stands to get worse. At least a dozen different types of missile-defense activities can't be performed without violating the treaty. We're honorable people. We don't violate treaties, even if we're told to expect only a nod and a wink in return. So the agreement has to go.

Why the urgency? Because time is growing short. Our enemies are working furiously to build the very types of weapons that make missile defense a national priority.

Osama bin Laden, for example, says he wants to develop a missile for the express purpose of launching it toward America. Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein has shown he will suffer any indignity -- 10 years of sanctions, economic catastrophe for his people, loss of oil revenues -- to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

This would seem the ideal time for a deal. The Russians want us to graduate them from the list of nations covered by the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which ties U.S. trade preferences to emigration policies, and to forgive some of their foreign debt. We need a missile defense. (The Soviets violated the ABM Treaty long ago and already have such a system.)

So let's strike a deal to bury the ABM Treaty (as Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev once promised to bury us). If Putin won't agree, then it's time to give notice and bow out.

The ABM Treaty is a relic of the past. Let's take advantage of this moment to get out of the line of fire now. We all saw the death and destruction that two fuel-laden commercial airliners can cause. Imagine what a nuclear-armed missile could do.

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

Related Issues: Missile Defense

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