Commentary: Star Wars Jr.: Pricey Pie In The Sky?

India and Pakistan set off nuclear blasts in May. Iran launched a medium-range missile in July; North Korea followed suit on Aug. 31. And chaos in Russia could put its nuclear arsenal at risk of being peddled for hard cash. There's no question that the world suddenly looks like a much scarier place.

Even so, does it make sense to accelerate the deployment of a scaled-down version of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars missile-defense system? GOP leaders think so. And while they couldn't force a vote on the $18-billion Star Wars Jr. program in the Senate, it appears likely to pass the House, providing an opportunity for a second try in the Senate.

TOO HURRIED? Despite the worrisome developments around the globe, rushing technology into development before it has been thoroughly tested is a mistake. Currently, the Clinton Administration plans to do two more years of research and development and then make a decision on whether to deploy by 2003. Even that schedule, both a Pentagon study and a report by the General Accounting Office insist, is too hurried.

As with the original Strategic Defense Initiative, the critical question is: Can this technology work? Admittedly, the mission to develop the currently contemplated system, being attempted by Boeing Co., isn't as daunting as Reagan's vision of a shield against thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles launched by the Evil Empire. This version is supposed to protect the U.S. from a handful of such long-range missiles fired by a rogue state.

That's still the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a bullet. And so far, the technology is proving difficult to develop. Take Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, an even smaller-scale attempt. Designed to defend troops in the field against 1,000-mile-range missiles, THAAD has failed in five straight tests. The Pentagon is considering whether to suspend the program. The proposed national defense system would have to be able to hit a missile traveling 15,000 miles an hour, twice as fast as some theater missiles.

Finally, some experts wonder if Star Wars Jr. can defend against the most likely threat. They argue that the weapon of choice for rogue states will be shorter-range cruise missiles--making even a working Star Wars Jr. useless.

Moving prudently has not deprived the project of necessary appropriations, either. As it stands, Washington is spending $1 billion annually to develop the system, and a decision to deploy sooner would probably not dramatically affect that number. What such a decision would do, however, is limit the U.S.'s options on pursuing alternative technology.

On the foreign front, the GOP must also consider the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Voting to deploy Star Wars Jr. would be a disavowal of the treaty at a time when the U.S. is trying to get Russia to sign new arms-control measures on its nukes: the biggest threat the U.S. faces.

Rapid deployment of a missile defense is an admirable goal--and a comforting thought. But hurrying development of a flawed Star Wars will provide only illusory protection. After all, this is rocket science.

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