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Missile defense: Keeping up with the Russians?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted August 23, 2004

Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, few people pay attention to what Russia is doing militarily. Two recent items though should send jolt our nation's policymakers to attention.

The first is that Russia plans to hike military spending by 40 per cent, concentrating on increased manpower and new equipment, such as MIG fighters and rockets. Right now, Russia undoubtedly is much more concerned with its southern flank where Islam predominates than in fighting America or the West. The Russian Army, which in Soviet days had prepared to fight a massive war against NATO countries, found itself caught flat-footed in Chechnya.

Now, military reformers around President Putin realize that they must transform their military to be more adept and mobile in smaller-scale conflicts. Their effort is a reminder that even a country that is supposedly living in peace must not allow its defense capabilities to become obsolete as circumstances change; not if it wants to be prepared to handle whatever threats may arise in an uncertain future.

Another recent report included in the Center for Defense Information's Russia Weekly made clear that the nation's weapons industry is forging ahead, developing newer and more sophisticated defense systems, specifically one called "Project Emperor" (aka "Autocrat"), which is designed to surpass our own Patriot missile. Only time will tell whether the promises of Russian missile scientists will turn out to be more than just talk. Right now, however, they appear quite confident in their assertions that the new system will be of great use to their air defense system. Indeed, one Russian familiar with the new missile system has actually proclaimed to the news media "trying to match [the Emperor] is pointless."

MosNews reported it this way: "The system's combat qualities combine the far range of the S-300VM missile and the advanced electronics of the S-400 missile. As a result Russian designers have developed a system that is better by all parameters than the newest American system -- the RAS-3 Patriot."

Heritage Foundation defense analyst Baker Spring makes the point that it would be wrong to conclude that the Russians are "beating the pants off us" when it comes to missile defense. The Russians have strength in dealing with medium and short-range missiles and the development of the Emperor may enable them to retain that edge. We have been developing our capability to fend off long-range missiles, but a question we need to ask our nation's policymakers is: "Are we doing everything necessary to make sure our nation is prepared to defend itself against a missile attack?" Particularly if it comes from a shorter range missile, the kind that a terrorist group might launch against a major U.S. city.

It is a question that cannot be asked enough this campaign season. Both parties' candidates for the Presidency and Congress need to hear about this important issue. For one reason, there is a mistaken belief that we are already spending too much on developing missile defense systems.

If anything, as Heritage Foundation defense analyst Spring wrote earlier this year, "With the U.S. missile defense program lagging behind the threat, the program deserves full funding." Spring believes that 3 per cent of the defense budget should be devoted to missile defense for several reasons. He says:

"Three percent should represent an adequate investment in missile defense, one that should provide for a good program but keep money available for other vital defense areas too. Right now, this is a program ramping up so the money needs to be there for increased procurement and administration. Furthermore, it is historically within the ballpark for a program of this kind. It also provides some flexibility in case in the near-future if there is a blowup on the Korean peninsula and therefore not just national defense but our missile defense program will become even more important than they are now."

Spring cautions that the overall spending level is not necessarily the best determinant of how the missile defense program is doing. He notes that there have been liberal congressmen who have actually called for increasing spending on missile defense, only to almost zero out space-based programs in favor of ground-based systems. Both systems, Spring argues, need to be developed and grossly underfunding the space-based system is short-sighted in the long-run.

The opponents and critics of missile defense systems deride missile defense as if it were far-fetched science fiction. But the fact is this idea is on its way. Fortunately, the Defense Appropriations Act, signed into law by President Bush, included more money than last year.

Last week President Bush visited a factory in Pennsylvania where the workers have worked on a missile defense system. "We want to continue to perfect this system," the President told the workers. "I think those who oppose this ballistic missile system really don't understand the threats of the 21st Century. They're living in the past. We're living in the future. We're going to do what is necessary to protect this country."

It is expected that soon the Bush Administration will declare us to have a limited operational capability to defend ourselves against a long-range missile attack. However, right now, we are defenseless should a short-range missile be launched off our coast against one of our country's cities. One day soon, we will need to be prepared to prevent today's horrible nightmare from becoming tomorrow's gruesome reality whether the missile comes from North Korea, China or rogue terrorists. To be ready for whatever may come in the future our nation's policymakers will need to increase their investment in developing the technologies that can ensure our protection. Otherwise, Americans may very well become victims of what we now consider to be the unthinkable.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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