Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel chose Friday afternoon to announce one of the biggest switcheroos of the Obama Presidency: The Pentagon now plans to fortify America's homeland defenses against missile attack, reversing a 2009 decision that was part of President Obama's fantasy of a world without nuclear weapons.
That's for sure. The Pentagon believes North Korean missiles can already reach Alaska and Hawaii, and it's only a matter of time before they are nuclear-tipped and can hit Seattle or San Diego. The Pyongyang regime has recently promised to attack the U.S. and turn South Korea into a "sea of fire." It's nice to see the Obama Administration finally admitting reality.
The shame is that the U.S. could already have those 14 extra interceptors in place, plus another 10 in Europe next year. Those plans from the Bush Administration were well along when Mr. Obama pulled the plug in 2009. He also mothballed or killed several promising missile-defense development programs, such as the airborne laser.
The decision to stop deploying interceptors and a radar to Poland and the Czech Republic was meant to promote the Administration's "reset" in relations with Russia, which even the White House now privately admits was a failure. The cuts to West Coast defenses reflected the Democratic Party's long aversion to any kind of missile defense. Seven years before winning the White House, Mr. Obama told a Chicago TV station that "I don't agree with a missile defense system."
In 2009 the Administration proposed a shorter-range antimissile substitute for Europe that at the time was more palatable to Moscow. But Vladimir Putin has since moved the goal posts again and now opposes even these defenses.
Mr. Hagel also announced on Friday that the U.S. is cancelling plans to deploy defenses against ICBMs in Europe within the next decade, and the suspicion is that Mr. Obama is offering them as a bargaining chip in his next arms-control deal with the Russians. Recall that Mr. Obama was overheard last year telling then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he'd have "more flexibility" after his re-election.
The Senate should tell Mr. Obama this is a nonstarter, but the growing nuclear and missile threats are also an argument for building a third antimissile site on the U.S. East Coast. A September report from the National Research Council noted U.S. antimissile shortcomings and specifically recommended an East Coast site to guard against an Iranian strike.
The Obama Administration's modified European plan may eventually protect our European allies against short- or medium-range strikes. But the East Coast of the U.S. also needs protection against an ICBM threat, sooner rather than later.
All of this vindicates those who have fought for missile defenses since Ronald Reagan first aroused liberal ire with his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. Among his more vociferous critics was a Senator named Joe Biden. U.S. defenses have continued to advance despite Democratic hostility, though much of the technology dates to the 1980s. Meanwhile, Israel has shown what modern defenses can do, reducing the damage from Hamas's Iran-supplied missile attacks last year with a 90\% hit rate.
Retired Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, who ran the Missile Defense Agency from 2004-2009, recommends that the U.S. catch up by launching a new "multiple kill vehicle" program. Shut down in 2009 by Mr. Obama, the MKV uses many small warheads on a single interceptor, which can handle decoys and has a better chance of success. The U.S. has also lost time developing technology to strike missiles in their early or "boost" phase, and space weapons have been neglected.
Even as Mr. Obama claims that stopping nuclear proliferation is a priority, the world is on the edge of a new and dangerous nuclear breakout. North Korea continues to expand its nuclear arsenal while Iran is ever-closer to having its own. Nations from South Korea to Saudi Arabia are now debating whether they need their own nuclear deterrent. If Mr. Obama won't prevent this proliferation, others should continue to press him to at least protect America from attack.