The Internet went apoplectic speculating on the “mystery missile” spotted Monday off the coast of California. The military concluded Wednesday that the long “contrail,” the wisp of white vapors in the sky taped by a CBS affiliate crew most likely came from a passing jet—not a missile firing. False alarm. The news that did not make the news is that under a different scenario the streak across the horizon could have been a missile. If it were, the online world would not be buzzing about it days later—because America’s days online would have ended.

One of the most devastating and yet realistic means to deliver a knock out blow to the United States is to covertly fire a nuclear-tipped missile at America from a surface craft off the coast of the country. This is often called the “scud-in-a-bucket” scenario.

Scuds are relatively inexpensive and widely proliferated short-range (a few hundred miles) missiles. Placing one on an improvised vertical launch tube outfitted on a commercial freighter is no great technical challenge. As long as the ship is not officially bound for US waters it could easily come within range of America without even attracting the scrutiny of the US Navy, the Coast Guard or Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection.

The scud-in-bucket scenario offers America’s enemies a number of advantages. Unlike a smuggled nuke, a missile can deliver an air-burst—detonating the weapon in the air above the target. Nuclear weapons detonated away from the ground are many times more destructive. As an added benefit, the likelihood of detection in route would be near zero. Missiles are also better than putting a bomb on plane bound for the US. Ships can linger for days and weeks. An enemy could keep America under the cross hairs and Washington would never know it till the trigger got pulled.

Most important, the strike could be completely covert. America would not know who hit us—and who to strike back against. It took two days for the Pentagon to assure us that the California contrail was nothing. Can you imagine the military trying to track down who dun-it in the wake of nuclear strike?

If an enemy wanted to invest in a covert capability to hold America hostage or decapitate a superpower in a single stroke the scud-in-a-bucket offers some interesting options. Say they had two missiles with even modest size warheads. One could be shot at New York or Washington where the explosion and ensuing firestorm could kill hundreds-of-thousands. The second might be fired at higher altitude over the East Coast where the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) from the blast would radiate out in a wide umbrella overloading electrical circuits and creating cascading systems failures that might put all of  the US and Canada in the dark—for a very long time. Not only would the EMP attack make emergency response operations impossible, as transportation networks, supply chains, the Internet, fuel deliveries, traffic control, and the electrical grids winked out tens, perhaps hundreds of millions would at be risk without food, medical assistance, heat or lights. Many would die. America would never be the same. The war against America might be won in a single day.

It is ludicrous to be complacent about such threats—especially since the capabilities to deal with them have wide-ranging applications for protecting and defending the American people. Missile defenses are part of the solution. Ensuring the resiliency of critical systems and infrastructure are another. Going after America’s adversaries and enemies—from proliferators like Iran and North Korea to al Qaeda (which has openly declared it seeks to get and use nuclear weapons) is also a vital part of protecting America.

Faux-missile Monday, if anything ought to be a reminder that now is not the time to talk about gutting defense. Trying to balance the budget by making us less safe makes no sense.

This administration started out lopping off a significant chunk of the nation’s missile defense budget—an amount equal to about a day of stimulus spending or week of cash for clunkers. This really showed where the president’s real priorities are. Others have taken their cue from the White House and have tried to frame defense spending as just another public outlay, a plaything of politics. Now the great irony is the White House will find itself trying to fend off even more draconian defense cuts so it does not look completely pathetically lame on national security.

The White House has only itself to blame. From the start those who want to gut defense had it wrong.

Defense spending is not like other government spending. It is above all the first and most sacred Constitutional obligation of government to “provide for the common defense.”

Furthermore, unlike everything else in defense the enemy gets a vote. There are no called time outs in national security. If Washington chooses to under fund the armed forces, America’s enemies won’t put their own efforts to undermine our security on hold. If anything, they will look on our deliberate self-weakening as green light to get more aggressive.

The tragedy of unpreparedness is that the costs always grossly outweigh the savings. America scrimped on defense during the Depression—the cost—more than 40 percent of US GDP went to fight World War II—tens of millions died. Half the world was wrecked. Washington took a “peace dividend” after the Cold War—the price 9/11 and the Long War that followed.

The road to fiscal responsibility is not to make America less safe. US military spending today is already modest compared to what America has paid to defend itself in the past. Either as a measure of GDP or as a percentage of the federal budget, Pentagon spending is at near historic post-World War II lows. And, where there are areas where defense could be made more efficient, those savings have to be plowed back into the military’s budget to make-up for a nearly unprecedented decades-long delay in modernizing military hardware. Unless we start to reinvest in defense now, the military was very soon start to resemble the broken “hollow” force of the 1970s.  The US Navy is already smaller than it was before World War I.

Nor is cutting defense essential to stop runaway government spending. Recently, Heritage identified over $300 billion in government savings—all of which could be achieved without gutting defense.

By next Monday, Americans will have forgotten about the hysteria of last Monday. We can’t be so sure our enemies will have missed the point.

Washington has already demonstrated it is fiscally irresponsible—let’s not add suicidal to the list.

Let’s bring back fiscal responsibility without sacrificing our security. That is the lesson of mystery missile Monday.