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Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that two upcoming tests of U.S. missile defense systems would be altered to conform to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Some press reports described this action as a “cancellation” of missile-defense experiments. Critics of President Bush’s commitment to defending the country against missile attack saw this as a welcome sign that “W” was – as Margaret Thatcher once said of his father – “going wobbly.” It ain’t necessarily so, and, for all of our sakes, had better not be.

Lost in the media buzz, congressional palaver and cork-popping among the professional arms controllers was a simple fact: The experiments themselves are still going to be conducted, with scheduled intercepts of long-range missiles occurring to continue the process of validating anti-missile technologies.

It is just that – thanks to limitations imposed by the ABM treaty, which President Bush has correctly described as “outdated,” “obsolete” and “dangerous” – the American taxpayer will not get full-value for the $100 million-plus that will be spent on each of these experiments. That is because they will be conducted without the use of sea- and ground-based sensors that would have added significantly to the data and experience generated by such tests.

As a result, operators of the Navy’s Aegis fleet air-defense system and radars ashore will be denied the chance to track and assess ballistic missile threats. This is particularly regrettable insofar as Aegis ships have the inherent potential to become formidable missile-defense systems in their own right – quite possibly faster, at lower cost and certainly with greater flexibility than ground-based anti-missile approaches now under development.

What is more, in the event some technical glitch occurs in the course of the flight tests (as has happened in several previous experiments of this complex and technologically challenging program), the task of finding and fixing the problem might be made more difficult in the absence of the additional data that these sensors would provide. Missile-defense critics relish this Catch-22: By insisting that testing be done in conformity with the ABM treaty, they can complain that the tests are unrealistic and, if they are not completely successful, proof that the technology involved cannot work.

The good news is that there can no longer be any disputing the fact that the ABM treaty impedes the development and testing, as well as the deployment, of effective missile defenses. This is no surprise to anyone who has taken the trouble to review the language of this short accord – its prohibitions are clear and definitive with respect to all of the most promising forms of anti-missile systems (namely, sea-, air- and space-based variants). It even precludes the very modest capability that has been proposed for fielding in silos in Alaska. From now on, die-hard supporters of the ABM treaty at the State Department, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere should find it impossible to continue their dissembling that the United States can achieve a viable missile defense within the treaty.

The bad news is that, unless Mr. Bush promptly disabuses them, the aforementioned interested parties and, worse yet, the Russians will likely misperceive the administration’s action on the two upcoming tests. They will construe the continuing subordination of the American missile-defense program to the dictates of the ABM treaty as evidence that – notwithstanding W’s oft-declared determination to “move beyond” that accord – in fact, like his predecessors, he will recoil from doing so.

This will, of course, only make matters worse. Since Sept. 11, in the face of Mr. Bush’s unwavering advocacy of missile defense, allied governments, congressional critics and even the Kremlin have largely abandoned (at least temporarily) their high-profile opposition. Nothing will do more to reinvigorate their obstructionism than the perception that the president is not serious about actually deploying systems that protect against ballistic-missile attack, that he could perhaps be bought off with a deal with Vladimir Putin that somehow allows nothing more than greater latitude for development and testing of anti-missile systems – and perhaps not much of that.

The reality is that President Bush was right in saying the case for missile defense is more compelling than ever in the wake of the attacks on this country last month. We now know that our enemies will use anything and everything they can get their hands on – from our own commercial aircraft to deadly biological viruses – to inflict devastation and terror upon us.

It is a matter of time and probably not much longer, before their arsenal includes long-range ballistic missiles that are highly efficient delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction. That prospect will only grow to the extent that we remain defenseless against such missiles.

President Bush is a conviction politician. He has repeatedly and publicly expressed his commitment to defend us, not just against planes and letter-borne viruses, but against all threats. Surely W understands that, in the aftermath of 9-11, public confidence in his word – to say nothing of his leadership and judgment – would suffer a debilitating blow were he now to shrink from taking the legal, programmatic and financial steps needed to build and deploy the missile defenses we require.

If so, Mr. Bush will establish forthwith that the two tests Secretary Rumsfeld described will be the last upon which the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty will be allowed to impinge. By so doing, he will not only clear the way for the earliest possible deployment of effective anti-missile systems. He will also maximize the chances that, at their meeting in Texas next month, Vladimir Putin will agree the ABM treaty really is a relic of the Cold War – and refrain from pursuing further diplomatic or public gambits designed to breathe new life into it, or give life to some equally malignant variant.

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