WASHINGTON -- Two military tests in widely separated deserts, one a chilling success and the other a persistent failure, have contributed the latest evidence to both sides of a recurring 15-year-old debate: Should the United States deploy a high-tech umbrella of killer satellites that will shield the states from incoming ballistic missiles?
Ever since Ronald Reagan advanced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposal for a space-based national missile-defense program that was dubbed "star wars," the question has alternated between the political wings and center stage every few years, catching the imagination of lawmakers, think tanks and presidential hopefuls.
The proposal has generated about $46 billion for development of a national effort and an assortment of spinoffs designed to destroy short-range missiles, ranging from the Navy's ship-borne "Theater Wide Defense" to the Air Force's proposed laser weapon outfitted on a Boeing 747.
So far, there is little progress toward the goal of "a bullet hitting a bullet." A national missile program is still on the drawing board, and the spinoffs are mostly spinning past their intended targets.
The only bullets that seem to be connecting are the verbal ones in the Senate, which failed last week by a single vote to cut off debate, thereby allowing consideration of the "American Missile Protection Act of 1998," a bill that has the support of 50 senators.
Sen. Robert C. Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, says there is a desperate need for a national missile-defense system. Look no further, he said, than the secret and successful Indian nuclear tests in the state of Rajasthan last week.
"The whole world was caught by surprise -- mostly the U.S. intelligence community!" thundered Smith, an ardent supporter of the American Missile Protection Act of 1998, which would put that shield into place as soon as it's "technologically" possible. // "How can anyone be opposed to that? It's irresponsible to be opposed to that."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is opposed to that, and believes it's responsible to be opposed.
The South Dakota senator points to an unsuccessful American test as proof that a fast-paced deployment effort isn't possible. The Army's Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system failed for a fifth consecutive time in a flight test May 11 at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., one day after the Indian success.
"It is now 0-for-5 in tests," Daschle says. The same technology is at the heart of the proposed national missile-defense program, which will cost tens of billions of dollars, says Daschle. Only one country on the horizon poses a possible new ballistic-missile threat: North Korea. But that country is "on the verge of collapsing on itself," he says.
National missile defense, he concludes, "is unproven, unaffordable and unnecessary."
"This is a bad, untimely idea," echoes Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat.
It's not that Biden and the Democrats are against spending tax dollars on developing a missile-defense system. Both parties have supported continued funding and testing. And the Clinton administration -- pushed by Republicans -- has boosted funding to some $3.6 billion for the next fiscal year.
They are at odds with Republicans over when and whether to put the missile-defense system in place. Many Republicans want it set up as quickly as possible, while the administration and most Democrats favor the so-called "3-plus-3 plan": Develop in three years -- that is, by the year 2000. If, at that point, the intelligence community determines the U.S. is facing a serious threat, the system would be deployed over the following three years.
Most Democrats prefer to move slowly, worrying that any system may violate the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That treaty strictly limits defensive missile efforts and has been successful in reducing the ballistic-missile arsenal of each side. Antagonizing the Russians may cause them to balk at further cuts, Democrats fear.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, held aloft a piece of metal from a now-defunct Ukrainian silo during Senate debate last week. "The silo's destroyed. There are now sunflowers planted," he said. "How did that happen? From arms-control treaties."
"The only real threat to the United States from a ballistic-missile attack remains Russia, which possesses over 6,000 strategic delivery vehicles," says John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World. A treaty "will destroy more Russian ICBMs than even the best missile-defense system."
But the Republicans don't want American defense held hostage by any treaty. And they worry about threats from rogue nations such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea, as well as the new scourge of chemical and biological warheads uncovered by U.N. inspectors Iraq.
"The Clinton-Gore administration inexplicably refuses to protect the American people from the unthinkable," says Steve Forbes, a once and possible future GOP presidential contender, who is again touting national missile defense. "We have the technology to defend ourselves. The question is: Does Washington have the political will to make it happen?"
Sen. John Kyl, an Arizona Republican, said the surprise Indian nuclear tests show that the intelligence community can't be trusted to keep America informed, as called for in the Clinton plan. "We won't necessarily know when there's a threat," he says.
Despite the intense debate over deployment, a national missile-defense system is still years away. Late last month, the Pentagon chose Boeing to begin crafting the complex program, awarding a three-year, $1.6 billion contract.
But the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog arm, says even deploying a system by 2003 will be a "significant challenge," given the technical challenges and the limited amount of testing planned. Later this month, the GAO is expected to come out with another report that offers an even more pessimistic review of the risks and costs associated with national missile defense, congressional sources say.
Meanwhile, the shorter-range missiles continue to fail in their own testing. The Navy's Theater Wide Defense system missed the mark twice. And the Army's failed fifth attempt lasted 5.8 seconds -- and cost $12 million.
"That's unfortunate. They're going to have to work harder," says Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., lead sponsor of the American Missile Protection Act. Each missile failure isn't entirely a waste of money for the Pentagon, Cochran contends. "They learn something from every one."
Cochran is convinced that the nuclear tests in India have at last focused the nation's attention on missile defense, which could become a campaign issue in the fall elections. "I don't know how the Democrats are going to explain these votes," he says. "If I were in a close election, I'd find it hard to explain."
He expects to bring a national missile-defense system up for another vote, perhaps as early as next month. By that time, Pakistan may well join India in testing a nuclear device, providing the Republicans with another reason for rapid deployment.
"I'm confident," says Cochran, "we're going to be able to deploy a system."
Pub Date: 5/19/98