December 13, 2001

December 13, 2001 | Commentary on Missile Defense

Requiem for a Relic

It looks like Santa's come early this year for those of us who know America needs to build a missile-defense system as soon as possible.

But then, President Bush's announcement that the United States is finally pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is, from a standpoint of national security, a gift to every American.

What a welcome change from last month when the headlines blared "No progress on ABM Treaty" as President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin departed the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas. Even though our commander-in-chief had called back in May for America to "move beyond" the treaty's outdated Cold-War mindset, outright withdrawal seemed a distant possibility.

Still, disaster was averted in Texas. President Bush didn't foreclose the possibility of withdrawing from the treaty in the near future. Nor did he agree to some half-baked scheme that would have permitted us to continue testing some of our more-advanced radars and interceptors until the Russians cried "foul." That set the stage for the president's withdrawal announcement.

What other choice did he have? 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 was continuing to honor the treaty's provisions. We even employ a team of attorneys at the Pentagon to ensure our continued "compliance."

But the president realized this couldn't go on much longer. Pentagon officials recently altered two critical missile-defense tests because those attorneys determined the initial test designs would violate the treaty.

They wanted to use two high-tech radars -- one in California, one on a ship -- to monitor the tests, so they could 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 latest test (which occurred Dec. 3) didn't include them.

The problem was only going to get worse. At least a dozen different types of missile-defense activities -- each essential to making progress toward deployment -- can't be performed without violating the treaty.

Americans are 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 had 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.

That pair would be more than enough to justify a missile defense, but they're hardly alone. North Korea is developing a long-range missile (one with a possible range of 6,000 miles) that could be targeted against the United States. And let's not forget Libya, Syria and other state sponsors of terrorism, all of whom could upgrade their own missile stocks with relative ease to threaten America's allies.

So we all can be grateful that we're about to bury the ABM Treaty (as Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev once promised to bury us). This agreement is a relic of a bygone era, and we've shown that we're smart enough to get out of the line of fire.

After all, we've seen the death and destruction that 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