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Up in the Air

Will Barack Obama ground the missile defense program?

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 2008 • By ALAN W. DOWD
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Among the questions raised by President-elect Barack Obama's victory, one has been largely overlooked by his critics and supporters: What fate awaits the international missile defense system Washington has been building over the past decade? After all, as is his way, the president-elect has been both for and against missile defense.

Before trying to decipher Obama's position on missile defense, it pays to recall the remarkable progress missile defense has made to date.

Critics of missile defense--and of President George W. Bush--believe it was Bush who forced the issue and pushed missile defense from the realm of theory into the arena of international politics. In fact, this shift began in the late 1990s, after a congressional commission raised a number of warnings about ballistic missile threats and, as if on cue, North Korea test-fired a three-stage rocket. President Bill Clinton then signed legislation that paved the way for deployment of a system to defend against "limited ballistic missile attack as soon as is technologically feasible."

Clinton's critics say he could have done more, which is true. But he also could have done much less. In the end, he followed the Hippocratic Oath when it came to missile defense: He did no harm.

By endorsing missile defense, Clinton reflected the emergence of a national consensus on the issue. As Gen. Henry Obering, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), observes, today's missile defense program is the product of four administrations, 11 Congresses and $115 billion in U.S. investment.

Thanks in part to that consensus, Bush was able to accelerate the program.

First, he notified Moscow of America's intentions to scrap the anachronistic ABM Treaty. He promised to slash America's nuclear arsenal from 6,000 warheads to 1,700 and assured the Russians that missile defense wouldn't upset the U.S.-Russia balance of mutual deterrence. At the time, Vladimir Putin agreed, concluding that Washington's decision "does not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation." (Russia's recent reversal is a subject for another essay.)

By early 2003, Bush was building a missile defense coalition. The British government agreed to upgrades of radar stations in the UK. Denmark approved similar upgrades at radar and satellite-tracking stations in Thule, Greenland.

In late 2003, Tokyo gave the go-ahead for construction of missile defenses, in close partnership with the United States. Australia and the United States signed a 25-year pact on missile defense in 2004. That same year, the United States began deploying interceptor missiles in Alaska and California, adding a new layer to the missile defense system.

No less than 18 nations are now partnering with America on missile defense--a function of the growing global threat posed by ballistic missiles. 
Three decades ago, there were nine countries that possessed ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32. By my count, 12 of them are unfriendly, unstable or uncertain about their relationship with the West. With their twin terror programs that seek to match rockets with nukes, North Korea and Iran top this list.

In July, according to Obering, "Iran orchestrated launches of several short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel and the U.S. bases in the Middle East." Just days after Obama's election, Iran tested a two-stage, 1,200-mile-range, solid-fuel rocket. At that range, the missile would be able to hit targets in southern Europe. The Defense Intelligence Agency "estimates that Iran could have an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015," Obering notes, ominously adding, "We should not assume that we have full understanding of ballistic missile activities around the world. We have been surprised in the past."

That brings us to the paranoid regime in North Korea. Over the past decade, Pyongyang has tested long-range rockets and detonated a nuclear weapon--both coming as stunning surprises to Western intelligence agencies. In September, we learned that North Korea conducted tests on engines for a new long-range missile and constructed a new facility for ICBM tests--and launches.

"It would suggest," warns John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, "they have the intention to develop the capability to perfect a missile to deliver atomic bombs to the United States."

Yet if proliferation gives us reason to worry, missile defense's important strides this year offer reason for hope.

* On the diplomatic front, NATO officially endorsed the missile defense system during its Bucharest summit.