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An Antimissile Defense? You See It Only in Movies

September 15, 1996|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Atlantic Monthly. His most recent book is "A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism" (Viking)

BRUSSELS — Fifteen years ago, the spectacular special effects of the movie "Star Wars" helped put the Strategic Defense Initiative, President Ronald Reagan's plan to build a defense against nuclear attack, in the forefront of U.S. politics. Those laser blasts on the screen looked so real that many viewers, Reagan apparently among them, presumed laser weapons exist--which they do not. Now the excellent special effects of the movie "Independence Day" seem to have helped renew missile defense as an issue in the presidential campaign. Viewers leave that movie with the impression that space combat is already possible.

It's not.

The closest thing the United States possesses to a weapon that could be used against nuclear missiles--an antimissile called Thaad--has failed in every test. "Smart" bombs launched under ideal conditions still lack the sort of accuracy a strategic missile interceptor would require under extremely difficult conditions. Even in the laboratory, lasers have yet to achieve the power needed to destroy an incoming warhead. No one has come close to testing any system that could track warheads falling at tremendous speed from space and aim a laser at them over hundreds or thousands of miles.

Nonetheless, space defenses are again in play as a political issue.

GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, a fan of "Independence Day" and also a sudden staunch advocate of a missile defense, recently called President Bill Clinton's lack of interest in this "one of

the most negligent, shortsighted, irresponsible and potentially catastrophic policies in history." Dole now proposes a crash program to field a few ground-based antimissile missiles by the year 2003. The Clinton administration has funded research into antinuclear systems, but fiercely resisted pressure to schedule deployment. This winter, Clinton vetoed a defense-budget bill because it contained language favoring the 2003 field date for a limited defense. On Sept. 7, Clinton said he would sign the fiscal 1997 defense authorization bill, which includes $3.7 billion for antimissile research--a hefty sum--but he agreed to sign only after the bill was amended to delete a GOP-backed call for the 2003 deployment.

Many Americans express surprise when informed that the United States has no defense whatsoever against intercontinental nuclear missiles (ICBMs) whose warheads would fall from space. If such a missile were fired at America today, there would be nothing the military could do. Dole says the limited defense he favors could protect the country from a small-scale missile attack by Iraq or North Korea; later, a complex defense, which would include futuristic air- and space-borne systems, would be built for defense against all-out attack by Russia or China. Clinton's defense secretary, William Perry, has said such a shield is unnecessary, because all-out attack is not in the cards, and Pentagon experts "do not see the threat of a missile attack on the United States" from small nations being possible for at least 15 years.

Any strategic defense system would be costly. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Dole plan would cost up to $60 billion. Any system would also entail either violation or renegotiation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in effect between the United States and the former Soviet bloc.

Republicans have long been eager to tear up the ABM treaty, which they view as a restraint on U.S. technological advantage (and a barricade to billions in funding for favored aerospace contractors). Democrats want to preserve the document, for it represents the first time during the Cold War that the United States and Russia agreed to avoid an entire class of military expenditures. But why shouldn't the ABM treaty be revised, if the Russians are agreeable? Any defense against missiles carrying atomic warheads would be in the public interest. The problem is, there is no reason to believe such defenses are possible.

Tens of billions spent during the 1980s by the Reagan administration on SDI resulted in no practical anti-ICBM--not even the notorious X-ray laser, which itself required detonating nuclear explosions to oppose nuclear warheads. Since then, research hasn't gotten much closer.

Last July, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense rocket, or Thaad, designed to protect Army units from battlefield missiles but also the closest thing to an anti-ICBM in the U.S. inventory, failed to intercept a mock target during a test. Thaad has failed in all three of its tests so far. It's Thaad--a rocket that would use advanced guidance devices to steer toward an incoming warhead--that the Dole bill proposes fielding by 2003.

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