Last Friday, top uniformed and civilian Pentagon officials made something of a spectacle of themselves on Capitol Hill.
It's not just that the officials--Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Ralston and Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles, the director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization--were forced to admit to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that they could no longer sustain the central tenet of the administration's resistance to the prompt deployment of missile defenses: The ballistic missile threat from a rogue state like North Korea is now recognized as likely to emerge before the United States can deploy effective anti-missile systems to defeat it.
Nor was the spectacle primarily a function of this hearing's juxtaposition with one the committee had held three days before. On the earlier occasion, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and each of the four Service Chiefs hewed to the old party line. They parroted the JCS's position laid out in an Aug. 24 letter from their chairman, Gen. Hugh Shelton, to the chairman of the Committee's Readiness Subcommittee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican: `We remain confident that the intelligence community can provide the necessary warning of the indigenous development and deployment by a rogue state of an ICBM threat to the United States.'
In particular, the JCS dismissed as `an unlikely development' a key conclusion of the blue-ribbon, congressionally mandated commission led by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--namely, the prospect that `through unconventional, high-risk development programs and foreign assistance, rogue nations could acquire an ICBM capability in a short time and that the intelligence community may not detect it.'
Yet, Mr. Hamre and the generals accompanying him were obliged to acknowledge that they and the intelligence community had in fact been surprised by North Korea's test on Aug. 30 of a third-stage on its Taepo Dong 1 missile. Indeed, this demonstration of the inherent capability to manufacture intercontinental-range ballistic missiles came along years before it had been expected by the Clinton team. It happened to validate, however, the Rumsfeld Commission's warning that the United States was likely to have `little or no warning' of a ballistic missile threat from the likes of North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
Gen. Shelton and Co. owe Mr. Rumsfeld and his colleagues an apology--just as the nation owes the commission a debt of gratitude for helping to shatter the administration's cognitive dissonance about the escalating missile threat.
The real spectacle, though, came when the Defense Department witnesses [proceeded to assure senators of two propositions that make the systematic underestimation of the threat pale by comparison. First, they asserted that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is in no way interfering with the United States' pursuit of effective missile defenses. And second, they claimed their work on such defenses is proceeding as quickly as possible.
The one exception Messrs. Hamre, Ralston and Lyles mentioned in the latter connection was the Navy's `AEGIS Option': an evolution of the fleet air defense system that is operational on the world's oceans thanks to an investment of some $50 billion to date, so as to permit it to shoot down ballistic missiles. They confirmed that this promising program was not receiving the funds it needs to proceed as quickly as technology would permit.
Unfortunately, to correct this shortfall, the Pentagon is actively considering terminating (either formally or de facto) the Army's important Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program. Were such an ill-advised step to be taken, it would offer proof positive of the adage that two wrongs do not make a right.
The Defense Department representatives went on to perpetrate another spectacular fraud. None mentioned that the AEGIS Option is a case in point of how the ABM Treaty is, in fact, preventing effective anti-missile systems from being developed and deployed as soon as possible.
If the dead hand of this 26-year-old accord--with a country that no longer exists--were not still governing the Clinton policy toward missile defense, there is little doubt as to what would currently be happening: The nation would be rapidly evolving its AEGIS infrastructure so as to put into place within a few years a competent, worldwide defense against shorter-range missiles (currently threatening our forces and friends overseas). Absent the ABM Treaty, moreover, this program would also afford the beginnings of a missile protection for Americans here at home for a price tag estimated to total (thanks to the sunk costs) just $2 billion to $3 billion, spent out over the next five years.
At this writing, Defense Secretary William Cohen and Gen. Shelton are about to appear before the Armed Services Committee. Given the velocity with which these sessions are producing dramatic changes in administration positions, perhaps these witnesses will reveal that the truth is breaking out not only with respect to the threat, but also with regard to what can be done about it.
Under no circumstances should the witnesses be allowed further to insult senators' intelligence by promoting the absurd argument that a limited national missile defense system that literally has to be built from the ground up can be brought on-line faster and cheaper than one that is largely operational, apart from some relatively minor hardware and software changes. This defies common sense. So does the line that the ABM Treaty--which nominally permits the former and explicitly prohibits the latter, sea-based anti-missile program--is having no impact on the effort to defend America against missile attack.
Whether the truth on these fronts actually emerges from the Cohen-Shelton hearing or at some future event, one thing seems clear: It will become harder and harder to lie to the American people about their vulnerability to ballistic missile attack and about the availability of near-term, affordable options for reducing that vulnerability, provided the ABM Treaty is no longer allowed to be an impediment to bringing defenses on-line. Hats off to Don Rumsfeld and his team for creating conditions under which such momentous changes may yet result in the deployment of missile defense before they are needed.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the director of the Center for Security Policy and columnist for the Washington Times.