Politics & Policy

The High Ground

The next missile-defense battle heats up in space.

Sometime between now and the end of September, President Bush will tell Americans that the United States finally has a rudimentary missile-defense system. The announcement will come shortly after the Pentagon activates a handful of interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. They’ll be advertised as capable of stopping a limited ICBM attack from the likes of North Korea.

#ad#Democrats then will repeat their standard arguments about why it’s better to have no missile defenses at all. They’ll say that it costs too much, won’t work, threatens to ignite a new arms race, and so on. They’ll also accuse the president of playing politics, because it isn’t fair to make John Kerry explain his party’s views in public so soon before an election.

The real agenda, of course, is to pull the plug on missile defense entirely. That’s what happened in 1975, when the military deployed Safeguard, a limited missile-defense system permitted under the rules of the ABM Treaty. One day after it went on alert, Democrats in the House of Representatives voted to withdraw funding. Six months later, Ted Kennedy led the Senate in doing the same. The program died in its infancy.

As a senator, Kerry has voted against missile-defense programs more than 50 times. As a president, he might very well try to dismantle what otherwise promises to be one of the most important accomplishments of the Bush administration.

If this initial round of missile-defense deployments survives, the six interceptors at Greely and four at Vandenberg will be just a start. There could be a total of 20 interceptors online by the end of 2005 and even more after that.

Missile-defense advocates–normally unified because they’re so embattled–are now starting to argue about what comes next. The chief dispute centers on how soon space-based missile defenses will become feasible.

The best time to shoot down a missile comes right after its launch, when it is big, slow, and hot–as opposed to later, when it’s small, fast, and cold. The problem with a “boost-phase” attack is that it requires an almost immediate response. Interceptors based in Alaska can’t strike ICBMs until they’re well into their trajectories. There’s simply no way they could hit North Korean rockets unless they were stationed very close to the launch site. A space-based interceptor, however, essentially could look down on the enemy’s blastoff, giving it a huge advantage over other countermeasures.

That’s the theory, anyway. The challenge is turning theory into reality.

“Space provides great advantages, but it is also complicated,” says Air Force Lt. Gen. Ron Kadish, head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency. “This is difficult technology. The idea that we can make rapid progress without evolutionary steps is immature thinking.”

Kadish has called for funding an intermediate program called Kinetic Energy Intercept, which would develop land and sea-based interceptors that would aim to reach their targets during their boost phase or shortly thereafter. Many of the country’s most outspoken supporters of missile defense, such as Henry Cooper of High Frontier and Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, have called this a huge mistake.

One of the chief weaknesses of KEI, they say, involves the basing. To target an ICBM launched from Iran, for instance, interceptors would have to be stationed in the region. Is it wise to invest billions in a new missile-defense system whose sine qua non may become the friendly cooperation of future regimes in Uzbekistan?

“I recognize that there’s concern over this, but it’s the right approach,” insists Kadish. “Boost phase is hard, but space is much harder.”

Last December, the Pentagon awarded a $4.5 billion contract to Northrup Grumman to begin developing KEI. Current plans call for spending more than $22 billion on it between now and 2014. At the same time, proposed funding for space-based interceptors has been cut by more than $5 billion over the next five years.

“This makes no sense,” says one defense-industry source. “It will turn one of President Bush’s signature national-security issues into a forgery. We should be going hard into space.”

The technical aspects of space may not be as difficult as Kadish suggests. In the first Bush administration, the Pentagon drew up plans for hundreds of mini-satellites, sometimes called “Brilliant Pebbles.” During an ICBM strike, they would shift their orbits into enemy flight paths. The ensuing collision would destroy both the interceptors and their targets.

Best of all, say advocates like Cooper, the technology behind Brilliant Pebbles was proven during NASA’s Clementine mission to the moon several years ago. The system would not require starting from scratch.

One reason why some in the Pentagon may resist proposals like Brilliant Pebbles is because the foes of missile defense will label them “space weapons” and demand that the United States forsake the “weaponization” of space. This is a canard, because space was weaponized long ago. Every ICBM leaves the atmosphere and thereby becomes a space weapon.

The main difference with Brilliant Pebbles is that the mini-satellites would be based in space, rather than on the ground. The fact that they’re meant strictly for defensive purposes won’t stop arms-control liberals from calling them “weapons.”

“The notion that defensive space-based interceptors will somehow weaponize space is intellectually dishonest,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, in March. “And we shouldn’t be using the phrase ‘weapons in space.’ Space is already used by militaries and of offensive missile in space is no less using space than its defensive interceptor.”

Nonetheless, many on the Left are calling for the United States to demand an international treaty banning weapons from space. John Kerry is one of the leaders of this movement. He has called space weapons “very disturbing.” A few years ago, he proposed “to offer the world the potential of a treaty that says, ‘We will only use space for peaceful purposes.’”

So even if a President Kerry acquiesces in his career-long goal to prevent the United States from deploying a bare-bones version of missile defense, like the one now taking shape in Alaska and California, he’s ready to fight the next battle. The question is whether the supporters of missile-defense will agree to meet him there, or whether they’ll concede the high ground.

John J. Miller — John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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