Roanoke Times
Adrian Cronauer

Cronauer is a Vietnam War veteran, attorney and radio personality best known as the inspiration for Robin Williams’ character in the film “Good Morning, Vietnam.” He lives in Troutville.

Rumor has it that Leonardo DiCaprio plans to remake the 1983 blockbuster “WarGames,” in which a young Matthew Broderick hacked into the government’s computer system and nearly triggered a thermonuclear Armageddon. Even though the Soviet Unionis long gone, it’s easy to see how the time is ripe for a remake.

In fact, the world is now a much more dangerous place. In 1983, only a handful of countries had nuclear weapons. Today, the nuclear genie has long left the bottle. Countries likePakistan,China and Russia have created a vibrant international market for nuclear and missile technologies, providing centrifuges, rockets and know-how to countries like Iran and North Korea.

Intelligence reports from theU.S., the International Atomic Energy Agency and the British government estimate that these countries will develop nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting within a few years – not decades, as some assume.

But there’s a real-world twist to the story that will make screenwriters working on “WarGames” rejoice and everyone else despair. Congress is poised to slash funding for our national defense just as these threats are on the rise, all because of a technicality imposed by the debt ceiling deal.

Among many other critical military programs, missile defense could take a serious hit. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

Over the last several decades, missile defense has been pursued by some as a dream and scoffed at by others as a boondoggle; thankfully, today it’s a reality. The Ground-Based Midcourse defense system – GMD for short – can intercept nuclear ballistic missiles outside the Earth’s atmosphere, destroying them in a precise, head-on collision.

The operational system has a strong track record in recent tests, during which the crew has just minutes to identify, track and shoot down the target missile without knowing when or where it will be launched. And despite the assertions from critics that countermeasures like balloon decoys could fool the system, the GMD tracking system has never mistaken a decoy for the real McCoy in tests involving countermeasures.

Housed in silos in California and Alaska, 20operational GMD interceptors extend a defensive shield over the U.S. mainland. Although that’s 10short of the number the Obama administration has pledged to build and less than half the originally planned number, it is a critical defense that we should continue to improve.

The cost of improvements is minuscule compared to the value of the missile shield. The entire GMD budget is less than 1/20th of 1percent of the federal budget. (By contrast, entitlements make up roughly 40percent) Cutting the missile defense budget will make us vulnerable to attack, but it won’t save much money.

That’s why it’s so frustrating that Congress may cut the system simply due to political gridlock.

Unless Congress intervenes, a process known as “sequestration” will automatically cut $600billion from the defense budget by slashing the top-line of every Pentagon program, including armor for our troops, drone aircraft to fight terrorists, and missile defense. By cutting the essential along with the inessential programs, “this kind of massive cut across the board … would have devastating effects on our national defense,” according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

These budget cuts could delay or even cancel the construction of additional interceptors to protect us from the growing ballistic missile threat from North Korea. It could dry up money to install interceptors on the East Coast to defend against the looming threat fromIran. And it could scuttle ongoing tests to improve the system’s defenses against increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles.

The sequestration cuts will ignore the expert intelligence that makes the case for these improvements and cut blindly, leaving us vulnerable in the near future for no good reason.

The same year “WarGames” hit theaters, then-President Ronald Reagan announced his plan to develop missile defenses to protect us from the very real threat of nuclear attack. Now that missile defense is a reality, Congress should protect it and the nation’s other essential national security programs.