President Obama sounded like a man who was glad to have missile defenses last month, when it became apparent that North Korea was planning to test a long-range rocket over the Pacific Ocean: “Well, first of all, let’s be clear. This administration — and our military — is fully prepared for any contingencies,” he assured Harry Smith of CBS News. “The t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted in terms of what might happen.”
The launch of North Korea’s Taepodong-2 may take place in the next several days, and the rocket may fly perilously close to Hawaii. If it does, mobile ground-based interceptors and a sea-based radar system — recently deployed to Kauai and the waters nearby — are in position to protect Honolulu and its environs.
Will this experience give Obama second thoughts about his hostility toward missile defense? It should, but Obama’s opposition is deeply ingrained. During the presidential campaign, he pledged to slash missile-defense spending. In recent months, he has made good on his promise. His proposed budget for 2010 includes more than $1 billion in cuts. One of the main casualties is a system of interceptors in Alaska and California whose purpose is to protect the West Coast from North Korea. Obama would halt their deployment at 28 anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs), short of the 44 the Pentagon had hoped to put in place by 2011. Another victim is Airborne Laser (ABL), which seeks to mount lasers on 747s. The goal is to target the fuel casings of enemy rockets just after they’ve blasted off and to destroy them when they’re big, slow, and still over their home territories. ABL may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but the technical aspects of the project are more or less proven. To become a reality, it merely requires continued funding.
Also in jeopardy is a missile-defense system currently planned for Eastern Europe. The NATO-endorsed program, which would include about ten interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, aims to protect Europe and the United States from the emerging menace of Iran. In February, rocket scientists in the service of the ayatollahs demonstrated their sophistication when they put a satellite into orbit, using the same ballistic technology that can launch warheads. Yet Russia has objected to this proposed defensive system on the preposterous grounds that it would create a deterrent to its own massive arsenal. Moscow’s real concern is the expansion of Western influence in former Soviet satellite states. Unfortunately, Obama has given every indication that he’s ready to abandon the program.
Wishing away these threats won’t cause them to disappear. North Korea’s imminent test may show that Pyongyang has the ability to strike Alaska and Hawaii with its rockets. Iran already can hit Israel and parts of Europe. It no doubt shares North Korea’s ambition of building rockets that can reach the continental United States. New risks may emerge as well, especially if Islamic radicals grab power in Pakistan. The time to prepare for these problems is now, before they’ve had a chance to mature and when there’s still an opportunity to research, build, and deploy the weapons that will continue to let Obama tell the public that the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted.