The day before

Published 8:27 pm Friday, December 9, 2011

By James “Ace” Lyons
Guest columnist

On Oct. 23, 1983, on orders from Iran, the terrorist group Islamic Amal, forerunner to Hezbollah, bombed our U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 and injuring hundreds more of our finest military personnel.

This attack came as almost as a prelude to ABC’s two-hour film released one month later, “The Day After,” which imagined a full-scale nuclear war on America. While criticized by some for sensationalism, the movie’s depiction of mass casualties, breakdown of civil society, and destruction of transportation, electrical and communications systems made an indelible impression on the 100 million Americans who watched the broadcast, the largest audience ever for a made-for-TV movie.


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President Reagan himself wrote in his diary 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, making all-out nuclear war extremely unlikely. While Russia is modernizing its nuclear weapon inventory and maintaining a capability to quickly ramp up its inventory, some strategists consider a more limited nuclear attack to be a real, growing threat.

Both Iran and North Korea — rogue nations that are sworn enemies to the United States — may soon each 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. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls North Korea “a significant threat,” and his predecessor, Robert Gates, warned that Pyongyang could have missiles ready to strike Los Angeles within five years.

The threat from oil-rich Iran may be even greater. 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 or the Gulf of Mexico.

The good news is that America is prepared for a ballistic-missile attack, much more so than in the mid-1980s. The missile defense program that President Reagan insisted upon, to the snickers of his detractors, has developed over the past two decades into an effective, functioning shield against a rogue missile attack.

Known as the Ground-Based Midcourse defense system, 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, both Panetta and Secretary of State 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-20th of 1 percent of the federal budget, versus 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.

James “Ace” Lyons is a retired admiral in the United States Navy whose 36-year career was capped by serving as Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet from September 1985 to September 1987. He is the chief executive officer of LION Associates LLC. Email him at