There is one problem with the ideas of a national defense missile system: After 15 years and $40 billion, it still doesn't work. And common sense says that what you want in a missile-defense system is reliability.

The U.S. Senate, however, has overwhelmingly (97-3) approved a bill that would mandate deployment of a missile-defense system as soon as "technologically possible." President Clinton has dropped his previous threat to veto such a bill.

"Technologically possible" does not mean foolproof or even good; it does mean expensive. Leaks from Capitol Hill indicate expanding a Navy anti-missile system will be more like $19 billion than the $2 billion to $3 billion indicated.

Nonetheless, the deployment will come to pass because the Democrats don't want to give the Republicans, whose idea it mostly is, a campaign issue in 2000. Even President Clinton had proposed spending $6.6 billion on missile-defense research over the next five years...a sum that seems likely to be pumped up by political considerations.

The defense system is against a "limited ballistic missile attack," meaning it is to counter threats from North Korea and Iran, which do not now and may never exist. The system as envisioned could be easily over-whelmed by a major nuclear power and does not defend against cruise missiles or a nuclear device hidden in a truckload of fertilizer.

Just the discussion of a missile-defense system has caused the Russian parliament to shelve consideration of START II, the treaty to reduce the thousands of nuclear warheads still in the Russian arsenal. And the Chinese, who still have only a minimal nuclear arsenal, are alarmed by talk of extending the missile-defense system to cover Japan and Taiwan. The Chinese and the Russians don't believe that we're seriously concerned about a threat from North Korea; they see the system as having them in mind.

And then there is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Congressional Republicans tend to be dismissive of the treaty, but the Russians, still the second greatest nuclear power on earth, take it seriously. The treaty could be renegotiated, but it should not be unilaterally abrogated, which deployment of a defense system would do.

Congress is surrendering the informed skepticism with which missile defense should be treated. The risk of headlong pursuit of a missile defense system is that we will find ourselves stuck with a ruinously expensive high-tech Maginot line.

The Gainesville (Florida) Sun Newspaper
March 18, 1999

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