Adm. James A. Lyons Jr.
In November 1983, ABC television broadcast a two-hour film titled “The Day After,” which imagined a full-scale nuclear war on America. In his diary, President Reagan wrote that the film was “very effective and left me greatly depressed.” Historians have speculated that the film encouraged Reagan to redouble his push for a missile-defense program despite critics who derided the notion as “Star Wars.”
More than a quarter of a century later, the Soviet Union has been relegated to the ashbin of history, but Iran and North Korea – rogue nations that are sworn enemies to the United States – may soon have nuclear weapons and the capability to launch ballistic missiles that reach our cities.
North Korea’s unstable dictator, Kim Jong-Il, has successfully tested Taepodong-2 missiles that could deliver a one-ton payload to Alaska. And just this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon, while intelligence recently revealed new Iranian bunkers that could house long-range ballistic missiles. Its active space program provides powerful rockets that could easily be adjusted for military use. Further, Iran has test fired a missile from a commercial ship, potentially enabling it to launch a nuclear-equipped missile off either our east or west coasts as well as from the Gulf of Mexico.
The good news is that America is prepared for a ballistic-missile attack – much more so than in the mid-’80s. The missile defense program that President Reagan insisted upon, to the snickers of his detractors, has developed during the past two decades into an effective, functioning shield against a rogue missile attack.
Known as the Ground-Based Midcourse defense system (GMD), the system integrates dozens of satellite, radar and sensor inputs to track the path of missiles launched anywhere in the world. It has proven, through hundreds of simulations, that it can “hit a bullet with a bullet” – firing interceptors into space to destroy nuclear ballistic missiles, even outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
Although missile defense was for years considered a Republican priority, the Obama Administration quickly realized that the technology had developed to meet a growing national security need and green-lighted further development. Twenty interceptors are now deployed in silos in California and Alaska, with crews on 24/7 alert. Further, the secretaries of defense and state, Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton, strongly support further research and development.
Yet this seeming success story has another, potentially tragic twist. Despite the obvious need for a shield against potential missile attacks, and the growing bipartisan support for GMD, its survival is threatened today by the inability of Congress to reach a compromise budget deal. The so-called supercommittee’s failure to develop a budget agreement means the Pentagon could face more than $1 trillion in budget cuts during the next 10 years. Budget experts say these reductions couldn’t happen without slashing missile defense funding.
What’s really disturbing is that missile defense is a relatively inexpensive program, when the benefits are compared with the cost. The GMD budget represents less than one-twentieth of 1 percent of the federal budget, vs. 40 percent for entitlement programs. So cutting the program won’t reduce our deficit substantially, but it could significantly increase the chance of a deadly nuclear attack against one or more of our cities.
Will we react to a missile attack with shock and horror the day after – or by being prepared the day before? It’s up to Congress to decide to modify the mandated cuts to the defense budget and for President Obama not to veto such modifications.
Adm. Lyons, who retired from the Navy and was commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet from September 1985 through September 1987, lives in Warrenton.