WASHINGTON — With intercontinental bombers off nuclear alert, MX missiles left to languish in the ground and the defense budget facing cuts of a third, the Strategic Defense Initiative--arguably Washington's most controversial challenge to the old "Evil Empire"--is about to blossom in the warmth of the post-Cold War world.
Without fanfare, Congress last week adopted a 1992 defense appropriations bill that gives the anti-missile program $4.15 billion--its highest funding level ever and a whopping boost of almost $1 billion over the preceding year. And this comes at a time when other expensive weapons systems are headed for big declines.
The increase underlies a remarkable political reversal in the program that then-President Ronald Reagan launched into tumultuous debate in 1983. Longtime Democratic critics like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) and Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), who once seemed ready to hound SDI into abandonment, helped smooth the way for this year's big investment. Even many Soviet officials, for years vilifiers of the American initiative, now are saying kind things about "Star Wars," as the program is frequently called.
In drafting the bill this year, House and Senate lawmakers wound up haggling over spending levels and deployment schedules for the system's hundreds of interceptor missiles. For the first time, they did not dispute that this is an idea whose time has come.
"This is the biggest thing to happen to strategic defenses since the 1983 'Star Wars' speech" by Reagan, according to John Pike, a space and defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. "For the first time in 20 years, you've got the Congress on record saying that, for practical purposes, we're going to deploy some defenses against nuclear missiles. And once you start doing that . . . you're not discussing virtue any more. You're just haggling over the price."
The turnabout comes as the result of a major downsizing and good timing.
"Star Wars" no longer is the expansive missile shield that would protect against a massive Soviet nuclear attack envisioned by Reagan. Now it is Global Protection Against Limited Strikes--or GPALS--a smaller, cheaper model that would pick off a limited number of incoming missiles fired accidentally or maliciously by any of the growing number of nuclear powers.
"On the House side, especially, there has been a key political shift," said defense analyst Barry Blechman. "Many of the centrist Democrats have concluded that the politics of opposing missile defenses are not good: It's hard to explain to people why they shouldn't be protected."
Against the Soviet monolith, the theory of nuclear deterrence was a basic pillar of defense policy--the Soviets would be deterred from attacking by knowledge that the United States could annihilate them with a nuclear assault in retaliation.
But against the new world's would-be despots? "I can't convince my mother that it means we should be vulnerable to the whims of a madman with a nuclear weapon and the missile to deliver it," said Blechman, chairman of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.
The acceptance of any form of "Star Wars" marks a watershed for Congress, which first debated extensive missile defenses in the early-1970s and rejected them in favor of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That document offers safety through mutual danger.
"It represents Congress' first post-Cold War weapons decision," Pike said. "All the other procurement decisions they've made in recent years have had to do with weapons that we don't need. But this is the first one they've decided we do need. It'll be a focal point for defining what the post-Cold War period is going to look like."
The transformation began last January when President Bush ordered the politically embattled program to refocus itself on a smaller missile attack and pared the overall cost to $41 billion. Reagan's original "Star Wars" plan had envisioned an elaborate system of multitiered defenses and a budget that Blechman estimated eventually would have reached $770 billion.
In recent years, though the Republican White House managed to keep it alive and funded, even the program's most ardent supporters had begun to question whether it would ever really be built. Its technical feasibility was openly questioned by many scientists and its immense potential cost made it a target for budget cutters and political opponents.
The Bush scale back generated political goodwill. But the Persian Gulf War added a big shot of public support.
The spectacular image of Patriot missile batteries knocking out Iraqi Scud missiles in flight took firm hold among American television viewers and sold the concept as no political speech could.