Commentary: Star Wars: The Case for Going Ahead

By Stan Crock

When the Senate unanimously passed a defense bill on Oct. 2, it virtually ensured that President Bush will get every dime of the $8.3 billion he sought for missile defense. Clearly, this ambitious program has not fallen victim to the September 11 terrorist attacks, as many said it would. That is for the best. For while our enemies have proven that a missile shield is no defense against some types of terrorist acts, the Star Wars endeavor may bring other benefits.

Whether or not America faces a threat from ICBMs launched by rogue states, continued funding of Star Wars helps address an immediate danger to troops President Bush may deploy. Specifically, the program helps hone technology to shoot down enemy missiles in the battlefield.

This is an argument you won't hear from Republicans intent on fulfilling Ronald Reagan's vision of a national missile shield. But both the GOP and Democrats have understood the threat ever since Iraq rained SCUDs down on Israel during the Gulf War. For years, President Clinton spent 75% of the $5 billion missile defense budget on theater missile defense (TMD) at the expense of the more controversial national missile plan, a scheme to shelter population centers from faster, longer-range missiles.

IN FLUX. As research on TMD proceeded, the Clintonites feared it would smack into restrictions in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Clinton tried to negotiate with Moscow limits on the capability of theater defense to avoid a fight over any potential violations. Republican conservatives balked, blasting efforts to "dumb down" defensive capabilities. Their real hope was that a souped-up version of a theater system could be the foundation for a national missile defense.

In a clever move, the Bush Administration merged the two programs, organizing the research according to when an incoming missile is intercepted--boost phase, midcourse, or terminal phase--rather than whether it's for a battlefield- or national-defense program. Today, the research focus is in flux. But more attention will likely be given to the boost phase, which even longtime Star Wars critics say is more manageable technologically than trying to destroy missiles as they approach their targets. For one thing, this avoids the nettlesome challenge of identifying decoys deployed at later stages. And emphasizing the boost phase will bolster the TMD program. "We can probably have some modest success against short-range, stable missiles," concedes one critic, Theodore A. Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist. As an example, he points to the upgraded Patriot, which is doing well in tests.

In any event, as a result of the bureaucratic ploys and the increased capability of theater missiles, the lines between the two programs have blurred. The sensors, soft-ware, and airborne lasers being considered for a national system could also help protect against the missiles that threaten combat troops.

If a sophisticated theater system violates the ABM Treaty, as the Clintonites feared, it wouldn't be such a big loss. Despite the constant reference to the ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of arms control, it did nothing to control arms. When the treaty was signed in 1972, Russia had 2,700 warheads and the U.S. had 12,400. By 1988, the Soviet arsenal had swollen to 15,000 warheads--partly because of new, multiple warheads on missiles. Denying troops in the field the best protection for the sake of an ineffective treaty makes little sense.

At some point, of course, the larger Star Wars program will hit a critical stage: It will either be deemed operational or dismissed as a Buck Rogers boondoggle. If, in the meantime, the program contributes to the protection of ground troops Uncle Sam deploys around the globe, the billions shelled out for Star Wars won't be spent in vain.

Crock covers defense in Washington.

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