June 3, 2003

June 3, 2003 | Commentary on Missile Defense

As Safe As Possible

Let's face it: Perfect safety doesn't exist. No matter what we do, there will always be those who want to kill us because they hate our freedoms, because they hate democracy, or just because they hate Americans.

That's why we need a missile-defense system -- today more than ever.

The Bush administration knows this. It recently issued "National Security Policy Directive 23," which makes missile defense the law of the land. In it, the president ordered the Pentagon to deploy long-range missile interceptors in Alaska and California by September of next year.

My colleagues and I at The Heritage Foundation have supported missile defense for more than 20 years. And though the threats are different today than they were when we first proposed it, in many ways they are greater.

For decades, our main adversary was the Soviet Union. Moscow had thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at the United States -- and we were ready to fire back with thousands of our own. But that was all we could do: Fire back. An attack would lead to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), a catastrophic scenario in which millions on both sides would die.

President Reagan envisioned a world where Americans would be protected from attack, and the Strategic Defense Initiative was born. The Soviets had no answer. They could only spend and spend on more nuclear weapons, until their entire system collapsed.

Today's threats come from terrorists and from rogue states like North Korea, Iran and Syria. We know that all these countries have, or are developing, weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. Yet we remain defenseless. A single nation or terrorist group could hold the U.S. hostage if it pointed a nuclear missile at one of our cities.

MAD won't work against a terrorist group. As the 9/11 hijackers showed, they're often willing to give their lives to kill Americans. We could always respond with a barrage of nuclear weapons. But the terrorists would consider our counter-attack a small price to pay if they could wipe out a U.S. city or two.

Japan's prime minister understands this. Junichiro Koizumi recently told reporters that North Korea shouldn't be allowed to blackmail the international community with nuclear weapons, and that his country should weigh the benefits of missile defense.

But under the White House's plan, Tokyo won't have to build its own umbrella. When it's fully deployed, our missile defense system will consist of layers of protection and will be extended to protect our allies and our troops overseas, not just our own soil.

Of course, some will say investing in missile defense is a waste of money, because such a complicated system can never work. They've been saying that for years, even in the face of a series of successful tests.

Now they have to ignore real-life evidence, like the Iraqi al-Samoud missile that was brought down near U.S. military headquarters on March 27. An army analysis shows the missile would have landed on or near our Coalition's ground operations center.

Such a direct hit would have been disastrous. Ground forces commander Lt. Gen. David McKiernan and many of his top lieutenants were at the headquarters, along with an embedded CNN crew.

Instead, a Patriot missile destroyed the Iraqi weapon. It was close. Some debris landed on the roof of the war room. But all inside were safe -- thanks to an effective missile-defense system.

Since 9/11, we've aggressively pursued our enemies. We're on the right track, but we must be ready to play defense, too.

An effective missile defense ensures that if our enemies do attack, we can defuse the threat, and move forward unharmed. In a dangerous world, that's about as close as we can get to perfect safety.

Ed Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation.

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