American Ingenuity Hits Its Target

This photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows an SM-3 missile being launched from the USS Lake Erie warship on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2008. The Pentagon says the missile successfully intercepted a wayward U.S. spy satellite. AP Photo/US Navy

This column was written by Mona Charen

The Aegis-class cruiser Lake Erie ("Courage, Determination, Peace" reads her shield) was pitching and rolling in heavy seas west of Hawaii on the night of February 20. Her mission was to shoot down a disabled satellite that was tumbling toward the Earth's atmosphere. The spy satellite carried a toxic fuel, hydrazine, that might — on the off chance it hit a populated area — have posed considerable health risks. March 1 was the deadline for action: on that date, the bus-sized craft would bounce against the outer reaches of atmosphere, thus sending it into a more erratic orbit. The firing window was only about 30 seconds long. At 10:30 Eastern Time, the USS Lake Erie was able to fire an SM-3 missile 153 miles into space and score a direct hit on a target that was traveling at 17,000 miles per hour. A fireball and vapor cloud testified to success.

General rejoicing? Not exactly. The Washington Post reports that "Scientists, arms-control advocates and others said the shoot-down was based on questionable modeling by the government of the risks to human health and was a danger to the future peaceful use of space." Questionable modeling? Aren't these the same people who argue that we must all abandon our passenger cars because computer modeling suggests the world may be getting a bit warmer? As for arms-control advocates, where were they back in January 2007 when China blew up a satellite that was orbiting the Earth? The Chinese were obviously testing military technology as the weather satellite they destroyed was in no danger of plunging to earth. Further, that satellite was orbiting at an altitude of 537 miles. Its destruction therefore spread debris through space, complicating the orbits of other satellites. But the arms control advocates were quiet.

They've been dreading a U.S. anti-missile capability since Ronald Reagan first proposed it in the 1980s. Then congresswoman (now senator) Barbara Boxer called the Strategic Defense Initiative "the president's astrological dream ... a dream of laser weapons powered by nuclear explosions, particle beam weapons, chemical rockets and space based interceptors parked in 'garages' in orbit." Then-senator Al Gore called SDI "not feasible."

Journalist Ted Koppel summed up the conventional wisdom among liberals when he declared "I think that what is being proposed for expenditure on Star Wars [sic] ... is absolute nonsense. Anything like an SDI program is going to put us in a position where, naturally, the Russians are going to feel threatened." Besides, he continued, reciting the then prevalent "It's Dangerous and it Won't Work" mantra, "There is no way it is going to work within the next twenty years and it is going to cost not billions, not tens of billions, not hundreds of billions, but trillions of dollars." The New York Times labeled the idea "a pipe dream, a projection of fantasy into policy." Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was equally dismissive. He called SDI "a fantasy — a technological illusion which most scientists say cannot be achieved in the foreseeable future. The defenses they envision won't make the United States more secure ..."

As recently as 1999, when Congress was considering funding for missile defense, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., OR) once again invoked the old George Lucas imagery to debunk the idea. "Like the movie, this is a phantom solution — hitting a bullet with a bullet in outer space."

But hitting a bullet with a bullet has become almost routine. On September 28, 2007, also high above the Pacific Ocean (75 miles), another "Star Wars fantasy" vehicle successfully destroyed the mock warhead of a long-range missile. Many other recent tests have shown similar success. In fact, the U.S. is joined by 30 other nations who are working on missile-defense systems. For those whose delicate constitutions forbid them to take comfort in military strength, they may consider that this same technology may one day save Earth from a catastrophic meteor strike.

Contra Ted Koppel, our capability to shoot hurtling satellites — and more dangerous flying objects — out of the sky did not cost trillions of dollars. Since 1983, we've spent approximately $100 billion on missile defense, a small percentage of overall defense spending during that period. And in the end, it worked.

American ingenuity can hit a bullet with a bullet. But there is still no cure for liberal short-sightedness.
By Mona Charen
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online
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