Features

'Civil' Missile Defense

Politics | Laid-back public keeps U.S. exposed to attack

Issue: "Is our military ready?," May 29, 1999

Time was when air defense was the stuff of backyard barbecues and Saturday science fairs. A 1950 report in Popular Mechanics graphed a then-high-tech air-warning system in patriotic tones for avid readers. According to the article, ground observers posted as lookouts, at natural extremities like Cape Cod, were primed to notify early warning centers of incoming enemy aircraft. These, in turn, would vector the news to interceptor aircraft and local civil defense centers. Early war games tracked the success of the defense system in the Northeast on a plywood board. Handwritten, color-coded slips of paper moved across the board to signify incoming "enemy" aircraft.

The system depended on grassroots enthusiasm: police stations, firehouses, and hospitals were the end-link in this civil defense chain. One ambitious grid front-loaded the system with civilians, too, placing 8,250 observation stations at eight-mile intervals across 21 Northern states. To work, it needed 150,000 ground observer volunteers-"men and women air-raid wardens from the last war, reservist groups, Coast Guardsmen and a host of interested everyday neighborhood folk," according to the article.

Today, more has changed than technology. Proponents of a missile defense system, the natural descendant of '50s civil defense, have fought an uphill battle to win public acceptance. Democrats lampooned President Ronald Reagan for a 1983 "Star Wars" speech calling for a space-based shield against long-range missiles. For all its way-out reputation, such a system would provide early detection of incoming ballistic missiles, which now can be loaded with nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads. It also would deploy anti-ballistic missile weapon systems to destroy an incoming missile strike.

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Proponents say the time for such a system was yesterday. Nuclear weapons proliferation has accelerated; Iraq is no longer subject to UN inspections for its weapons of mass destruction; and China has penetrated U.S. security to steal advanced nuclear secrets and ballistic missile technology. The U.S. Patriot missile, of Gulf War fame, could not intercept a long-range missile fired at Alaska or Hawaii by North Korea, or launched by Iran at Israel, or accidentally shot at Great Britain by Russia.

For all the storm clouds, the public shows no sign of catching a case of missile scare. Weened from civil preparedness by peace at home and the fall of the Soviet Union, Americans are slow to again take up the Buck Rogers mantle. Comforted by the promises of globalism, they have been unwilling to confront new threats. Yet, as a recent report from the Heritage Foundation points out, Americans at home are as vulnerable as ever, given the proliferation of missiles among developing countries.

"Impoverished, unpredictable states like North Korea are developing missiles capable of striking American soil in less time than it takes to watch the evening news," writes James H. Anderson, author of America at Risk: The Citizen's Guide to Missile Defense.

Mr. Anderson, a defense and national security policy analyst at Heritage, thinks grassroots activism in defense of the country is needed once again. His book is an attempt to put the technology into digestible form. He would like to see missile defense discussion groups and other small-town efforts revived in order to render it less esoteric.

Republicans and Democrats have come closer together on this issue after Mr. Clinton agreed earlier this year to a plan for a system that could be deployed by 2005. Republicans largely favor a

sea-based system, which has greater flexibility than a ground-based system and could be constructed using existing Aegis naval tracking technology. With that system, space-based sensors also could be added at a later date.

But the White House is stalling on the timetable over concern that the congressional plan violates the 1972 Anti- Ballistic Missile treaty with the Soviet Union. Legislators have collected legal briefs showing that the treaty should be scrapped since it was initialed with a now-defunct state. They gained support from a bipartisan commission headed by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former national security adviser Henry Kissinger.

Defense analyst and consultant Tom Moore thinks resistance from the White House may be generic: "It has nothing to do with missile technology or arms control," he told WORLD. "You have to delve into the moral realm. I think if [Vice President Al] Gore is elected or someone out of the globalist establishment, we will never have a missile defense system. The left really does not believe the country should be defended." The key to broad-based support, then, comes down to this: whether "everyday neighborhood folk" believe they have sovereign territory to protect and defend.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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