Build a Comprehensive Missile Defense

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s July 4th fireworks show may have fizzled when his Taepodong-2 missile — designed to reach targets in the United States — fizzled out after 42 seconds of flight and fell into the Sea of Japan.

But the test of this North Korean missile (along with others) this week should be a wake up call to Congress: This nation must deploy a reliable missile defense capable of protecting all U.S. territory.

Currently, a fledgling U.S. missile defense system has deployed 11 interceptor missiles in Alaska and California. Its reliability has been questioned, however. Between October 1999 and October 2002, five tests of the interceptor were conducted. One failed. The other four shot down space-borne reentry vehicles of the kind that would carry an enemy warhead into the United States. Since then, the interceptor has failed three straight tests.

It is no wonder the U.S. is behind where it ought to be in the development of a reliable missile defense. After President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, liberal Democrats in Congress did everything they could to thwart it. Reagan was resolute in maintaining the program, however, and was able to push it far enough to convince Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviets could never compete with it — thus helping to end the Cold War.

But when President Clinton took office in 1993, he downgraded the program and sustained the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which forbade the deployment of a nationwide missile defense.

In 1998, Senate Democrats went so far as to filibuster a Republican bill calling for deployment of a missile defense as soon as possible. The Democrats prevailed by one vote.

When President George W. Bush took office, he wisely abrogated the ABM Treaty and promoted the program that has now deployed 11 antiballistic missiles of questionable reliability.

With Iran moving forward with a nuclear program and North Korea manifestly intent on perfecting a missile that can reach the United States, this nation can no longer dither on missile defense.

The Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency eventually aims at deploying systems that can stop enemy missiles in all phases of flight — boost, midcourse and terminal. Patriot missiles deployed by the U.S. overseas can stop short-range missiles in their terminal phase. The interceptors deployed in Alaska and California are supposed to be able to stop long range missiles in midcourse. And missiles that will be launched from 3 U.S. Navy cruisers and 15 destroyers are designed to stop mid-range missiles in midcourse. (Phased deployment of these ships will start this fall.)

Laser and kinetic kill weapons designed to stop missiles in the boost phase, however, still need to be developed.

Congress should make certain the Defense Department focuses on completing and perfecting these programs in the swiftest time possible and that they are deployed in sufficient number to defend all U.S. territory.