The Corner

Word to the Wise, from the Inside

In a column last week, I noted a news item headed “Pentagon Says Missile Defense System Hit Target in Test.” (Article here.) I applauded this result. And said,

In March of last year — the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s SDI speech — I looked into the progress of our program. I talked to many experts about it. I did a piece for National Review, and a series here on NRO.

This is what I concluded, in simplest terms: We can do this (missile defense) if we want to — but only if we want to. It’s a matter of political will, primarily. And that ebbs and flows with voters’ presidential choices.

I got a letter from a reader that contains some important information. I wanted to share it with you here. The reader-writer works on the inside:

. . . Prevailing rumor was that the future of the program was hanging on this test, so pride and relief were thick in the air Monday morning.

What doesn’t come across in the media reports is that we test missiles in order to improve them, not simply to qualify them. We could certainly spend millions setting up realistic tests that our systems would pass every time, because our systems work very well against any threat that currently exists. But if we want a missile defense that can address tomorrow’s threats, we need to design tests that are genuinely difficult, so we can continue to improve our system’s performance. Each test that “fails” provides crucial data, and in some ways more valuable data than a “successful” test does. It’s very frustrating, then, that a string of “failed” tests is interpreted by the media, the public, and ultimately Congress as evidence of a failing program. (This is also why I cringe whenever American commenters chortle at “failed” North Korean tests.)

You’re entirely correct to say that it’s a matter of political will. A key part of that political will is communication, to explain to the American people why we should invest in these programs. That communication has been so lacking recently that I’m not sure I myself would think we were getting our money’s worth in the area of missile defense if I didn’t have personal experience with it.

That letter is both illuminating and, I think, chilling. Naturally, I am a little wary of national crusades. I think missile defense ought to be one, as I’ve written often (and vainly).

Also, memo to self: Never chortle at a “failed” Nork nuke test.

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