Fort Worth Star-Telegram
October 7, 1999

Happy To Do A Turn-Around On Strategic Missile Shield

By Cecil Johnson

Whether the interceptor hits the missile or the missile hits the interceptor, it's curtains for the missile.

One can derive considerable comfort from the news that this country has demonstrated the capability to cause such collisions in the stratosphere at a time of increasing concern about nuclear proliferation.

It is, of course, a long way from the successful interception of one Minuteman missile 140 miles above the Pacific to the deployment of an operational anti-ballistic missile system.

Nevertheless, that singular achievement demonstrates conclusively that the deployment of an effective anti-ballistic missile shield is possible, if enough resources and national will are directed toward that objective.

There was a time when I would have argued that those resources could be better utilized in lifting Americans out of poverty, improving education, protecting the environment and rebuilding the nation's infrastructure.

I'd still prefer having the huge expenditures that would be required to develop and deploy such a system put to different purposes. But there comes a time when national security, even global security, must take precedence.

This, some of my critics will note, represents a dramatic turnaround for me on this issue. In the past I lambasted the "Star Wars" initiative as unrealistic and misguided. And I was right at the time.

I correctly assessed Star Wars as the fantastical obsession of a president with a too-strong attachment to the world of make-believe.

But the times have changed. So have the global challenges confronting this nation. And so has the kind of nuclear peril that glimmers on the horizon of the dawning new century.

Ronald Reagan wanted to build a shield to protect the country from a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, which possessed a plethora of intercontinental ballistic missiles, most of which were tipped with multiple nuclear warheads.

The effort could have bankrupted the nation. Fortunately, the Soviet Union collapsed and spared us the expense. It is well, however, that the research continued on a reduced scale. Now, to the chagrin of those of us who said it couldn't be done, verifiable missile interception was achieved.

And I say "hallelujah" as I wash the egg off my face. I welcome this achievement, realizing that the nation faces the growing peril of being subjected to a nuclear attack by a rogue state that has attained that capacity by purchasing nuclear and missile hardware and know-how from the Russians.

Building on the successful intercept, it should be possible to build a shield to protect against such an attack in time to convince the leadership of any rogue state of the folly of such a course.

At the same time, resources and imagination need to be focused on establishing a more elaborate and sophisticated system to defend against the growing threat of a nuclear missile attack from China, which continues to improve and increase its nuclear missile arsenal.

Understandably, the Russians are upset about the possibility that this country will deploy such a system. In their view, it violates the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Perhaps it would, if the Soviet Union, which signed on to that agreement, still existed.

The United States and Russia need to come to another accommodation that takes into consideration the changed nature of the current nuclear peril. Perhaps the Russians can be shown that the greater threat to them comes from the East and not from the West.

With the Senate almost certain to reject the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the need for a nuclear shield is intensified. That irresponsible action will exacerbate nuclear proliferation and severely undermine U.S. efforts to curb it.

If the Senate does reject the treaty, how hypocritical this nation will look in light of the stern admonitions and punitive measures that it leveled against India and Pakistan because of their recent nuclear tests.

In a world bristling with nuclear weapons, the United States has little choice but to try to protect itself from surprise attack.

But we need somehow to that challenge without shortchanging other priorities that are crucial to continued progress in improving the quality of life and expanding opportunities for all Americans.

Cecil Johnson is a Star-Telegram columnist and editorial writer.