Chuck Hagel deserves praise -- four words I did not expect to be writing -- for announcing an expansion of the U.S. missile-defense system. Fourteen additional ground-based long-range missile interceptors are to be installed in Alaska by 2017 at a cost of $1 billion. Their purpose: to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles before those ICBMs reach their intended victims. Combined with interceptors in California, this will bring the total number of West Coast interceptors to 44.
More praise will be due if this turns out to represent a broader change of heart on missile defense within the Obama administration. Consider: In 2001, Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, said flatly: "I don't agree with a missile-defense system." Seven years later, during his first presidential campaign, then-U.S. Sen. Obama pledged to slash $10 billion from the Pentagon's missile defense budget -- about $1 billion more than the U.S. was spending on missile defense at the time.
Nevertheless, in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. was prepared to provide a global missile "defense umbrella." That would have been historic -- but it never got off the ground (you should excuse the expression). Instead, missile-defense spending was cut by $1 billion that year, and there have been cuts every year since. In a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's strategic forces subcommittee, charged that the "damage done to missile defense by this Administration will take billions of dollars to undo, and finding that money is so much tougher now."
For a very long time, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, just retired, argued strenuously for the development of a comprehensive system to protect America from missile attacks, both conventional and EMP (electromagnetic pulse). In a 2005 Washington Post op-ed, Kyle explained:
"A single Scud missile, carrying a single nuclear weapon, detonated at the appropriate altitude, would interact with the Earth's atmosphere, producing an electromagnetic pulse radiating down to the surface at the speed of light. ... (T)he effect would be to knock out already stressed power grids and other electrical systems across much or even all of the continental United States. ... Iran has surprised intelligence analysts by describing the mid-flight detonations of missiles fired from ships on the Caspian Sea as 'successful' tests. North Korea exports missile technology around the world."
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and other members of the House Missile Defense Caucus also have attempted to make the pro-missile-defense argument. The Heritage Foundation produced a very good documentary film on the missile threat and the need to counter it. Quite a few scholars and opinion writers have beaten the drum as well. These efforts produced meager results -- at most, the cuts were not as deep as they might have been.
So why the change now despite soaring debt and sequestration? For one, 28-year-old Kim Jong Un has turned out to be a chip off the old communist bloc -- as bellicose a North Korean dictator as his father and grandfather before him. In recent days, Kim has threatened to launch nuclear attacks against both South Korea and the U.S. And Kim seems to be putting his missiles where his mouth is. His new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, which can be easily hidden and launched with little or no warning, represents a clear and present danger to South Korea, Japan, Alaska and Hawaii. The Pentagon expects California, Oregon and Washington state to be within reach before very long, too.
For these and other reasons, the imminent introduction of new interceptors in Alaska points the U.S. in the right direction -- but it should be only the beginning. The East Coast of the United States cannot be adequately protected by missile-defense interceptors in Alaska and California. Installing a third antimissile site on the East Coast would be prudent if this slice of America -- which, if memory serves, has some fairly major population centers -- is to be protected.
It was 30 years ago last week that President Reagan first proposed that America build a global missile-defense shield. He envisioned a nuclear strategy based not on the cold comfort of MAD (mutually assured destruction) but on developing the capability to "intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies." In 1983, science was not yet up to the task. Now we have the technological way, the question is: Do we have the will? Do Obama and his top advisers now agree with missile defense?
(Clifford May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)