WASHINGTON — Count your blessings in the failure of the Feb. 7 antimissile test. The real problems would have come if the antimissile test had worked.
First, there would have been an argument about whether the test was rigged, as several scientists said it was, with a single target and a single decoy instead of the myriad that could be expected in a real missile attack. In addition, the decoy that was used was designed to be easily distinguishable by the defense sensors of the interceptor rocket.
Had the thing worked, then President Clinton would have been under congressional pressure to take the first steps toward deployment by the year 2005 of a $60 billion system that would theoretically protect all 50 states.
Had that happened, we soon would have had Russia and China issuing dire warnings about full-scale resumption of the nuclear arms race. And they would have been supported, to some extent, by our allies in Western Europe who fear "decoupling." That is, America seeing to its own defense while leaving its friends vulnerable.
Had the test worked, missile defense would have become an almost immediate issue in the presidential campaign. Vice President Al Gore would have been obliged to defend the Clinton administration's position. Gov. George W. Bush would have attacked the national missile defense plan as inadequate and would have pushed his much broader plan.
But the test didn't work, and although the Pentagon says that only one thing went wrong - the darned interceptor didn't separate from the booster rocket - it is clear that Mr. Clinton is in no position to say that the system is feasible, as he has to before moving toward deployment. What a relief that must be to him.
While Defense Secretary William Cohen says that more tests are planned, there will probably be no more on Clinton's watch, and he can happily kick the can down the road to his successor. The Russians, of course, are having a field day, saying they always knew the thing didn't work, (although, if so, why were they so upset about it?).
The people who are most distressed about the failure are Boeing, the lead contractor, and dozens of contractors and subcontractors scattered across the country that were supposed to share in that $60 billion. They have so much influence in so many congressional delegations that the project will probably stay alive, which teaches us once again that nothing succeeds like failure.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society