President Bush calls it a "modest" first step. True -- but it's one that promises to make Americans much safer in the long run.
Specifically, the president's decision to deploy a missile defense means that our total vulnerability to missile attack -- yes, total; we could do nothing in the event of an accidental or deliberate launch -- will soon go the way of the Berlin Wall.
The 10 land-based interceptors the president plans to put in Alaska and California by 2004, along with 10 more interceptors by 2005 or 2006, will provide us limited protection from long-range missiles fired from North Korea and other rogue regimes. More important, as technology progresses further, this initial set-up can serve as the foundation of a more complex system designed to stop other types of missiles.
Critics call the president's move a mistake. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the outgoing chairman of the Armed Services Committee, says it "violates common sense by determining to deploy systems before they have been tested and shown to work."
He's wrong. Yes, the most recent test, conducted Dec. 11, was a flop; an interceptor rocket failed to separate from its booster soon after being launched from an island in the central Pacific. But some context, if you please: Five of the last eight tests have been successes, including the four that preceded the Dec. 11 test.
And that doesn't even count the successful tests that have been conducted on shorter-range missiles, including the Navy's Standard Missile-3 and the Army's upgraded Patriot system called PAC-3.
"When you look across the board, we have made, I think, significant progress in our overall hit-to-kill technology," said Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Missile Defense Agency.
Critics who used to say that hitting "a bullet with a bullet" is impossible are reduced to grousing about the fact that we don't have a perfect system ready to go yet.
Sorry, but perfection is a thinly disguised excuse for inaction. Besides, the critics don't seem to realize that deploying a system now will bring us more quickly to the best system we can deploy. "The reason I think it's important to start is because you have to put something in place and get knowledge about it and experience with it," in the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Other critics deride missile defense as a distraction from the war on terrorism -- something that will waste billions of dollars that could go toward other defense efforts. On the contrary: As increased security and heightened alertness make a Sept. 11-style attack harder to mount, we can expect to see terrorists turning to missiles capable of delivering the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons they're trying to obtain.
Critics also complain that missile defense will help fuel an arms race -- that it will undermine efforts to reduce the number of missiles aimed at U.S. targets. They prefer to put their faith in outdated agreements such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibited a territorial defense against ballistic missile attack.
President Bush has proved this argument to be utterly false. At the same time he was moving forward with his missile-defense program and withdrawing the United States from the ABM Treaty, he was concluding an arms-control agreement with Russia to reduce offensive strategic arsenals on both sides to levels not seen since the early 1970s.
What about diplomacy?
But, critics may reply, what about diplomacy? Won't missile defense hurt that? As Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist with the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, says, the Bush administration is "not going to do the other things they should be doing to deal with emerging threats, like negotiate with North Korea."
Perhaps Ms. Gronlund doesn't realize that we have negotiated with North Korea. The Agreed Framework, signed in 1994, called on North Korean officials to freeze their nuclear program in exchange for two civilian light-water nuclear reactors. They got their reactors ... and, as they themselves recently revealed, kept moving their nuclear program forward. Indeed, the long-range missile capability of their nuclear program makes the deployment of missile defense even more urgent.
The American people should be heartened by what President Bush has done. Last December, he brought 30 years of deliberate vulnerability to a close when he pulled us out of the ABM Treaty. Now, a year later, he's decided to give missile defense a chance to show how much it can do to protect us all from attack. His initial plan may be "better than nothing," in Secretary Rumsfeld's words, but it's exactly what we need: A start.
-- Baker Spring is the Kirby research fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.