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Viewpoint: Democrats left U.S. vulnerable

By Marc Thiessen

With last weekend's surprise nuclear test, North Korea has reached final stage of its crash course to develop thermonuclear weapons that can reach and destroy U.S. cities. So why are we not on a crash course to protect our cities from North Korean nuclear missiles?

Answer: Because for more than three decades, Democrats have done everything in their power to prevent, obstruct or delay the deployment of ballistic missile defense.

Opposition to missile defense has been an article of faith for Democrats since President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. Sen. Edward Kennedy led the early opposition to what Democrats derisively labeled "Star Wars," denouncing missile defense as a "mirage" and "a certain prescription for an arms race in outer space." Running against Reagan in 1984, Walter Mondale called it a "dangerously destabilizing" and unworkable "hoax."

Reagan nonetheless moved forward with research and development, and his successor, George H. W. Bush, put missile defense on track for deployment with the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) program. But as soon as President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he terminated GPALS and cut national missile defense funding by 80 percent, while downgrading it from an acquisition program to a technology demonstration program. Clinton also signed an agreement to revive the moribund Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which banned deployment of missile defense and whose status had come into question with the 1991 collapse of our treaty partner, the Soviet Union.

Then Republicans took over Congress, and passed a defense authorization bill in 1996 that required deployment. Clinton vetoed it on the grounds that there was no threat.

When President George W. Bush came to office, he revitalized missile defense efforts and withdrew from the ABM Treaty. Democrats were more upset than the Russians. Sen. Joseph Biden declared "The thing we remain the least vulnerable to is an ICBM attack from another nation" adding "This premise that one day Kim Jong Il or someone will wake up one morning and say, 'Aha, San Francisco' is specious."

Bush deployed the first ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska, and put in place a plan to deploy 44 interceptors by 2009. He reached a historic agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic to deploy defenses. And he dramatically increased funding for three critical programs: The first two - the Airborne Laser and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor - would take out a ballistic missile in the "boost phase" of flight, the most vulnerable eight minutes when a missile is still over enemy territory and presents a large, slower-moving target because the small nuclear warhead at the top has not yet separated from the large rocket filled with highly explosive fuel. The third - the Multiple Kill Vehicle - would place multiple warheads on our ground-based interceptors, so that instead of hitting a "bullet with a bullet" we could fire five or 10 bullets at each target, dramatically increasing chances of success.

If we had continued the Bush program over the past eight years, we would now have a robust array of defenses against any North Korean ICBM. We would be able to target a North Korean missile in the boost phase, and if that failed we would have 44 ground-based interceptors armed with hundreds of warheads that could be fired to take it out in mid-course.

But we did not continue the Bush program. President Barack Obama slashed funding for ballistic missile defense by 25 percent. As part of his failed "reset" with Russia, he scrapped Bush's agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic. He reduced Bush's plan from 44 ground-based interceptors to just 30. (He belatedly changed course in 2012 after North Korea tested the Taepodong missile, but the United States still has not recovered from the delay.) And he cancelled the Airborne Laser, Kinetic Energy Interceptor and Multiple Kill Vehicle programs. As a result, North Korean now has eight minutes of unchallenged flight during which their missiles are most vulnerable, and we have dramatically reduced the chances of hitting a North Korean missile as it descends on a U.S. city.

Amazingly, on taking office, President Donald Trump's budget continued Obama's missile defense cuts, reducing funding by another $300 million. Trump has since recognized his mistake, promising "We are going to be increasing the anti-missiles by a substantial amount of billions of dollars." Time to do so is short. He should immediately deliver Congress an emergency supplemental spending bill to speed the deployment of ground-based interceptors, and he should revive the Multiple Kill Vehicle, the Airborne Laser and Kinetic Energy Interceptor - and then work with Congress on a long-term plan to build and deploy space-based interceptors.

In 1983, Reagan asked "Isn't it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war?" For the Democrats, the answer was no. No one is happier about that today than Kim Jong Un.

Marc Thiessen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. This piece first appeared in the Washington Post.

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