Fifteen years ago this month, then-president Ronald Reagan unveiled his futuristic "star wars" missile-defense plan, igniting a fiery debate over the feasibility of building a system that could shield the United States from nuclear devastation.
Some $50 billion later, the cold war is over and so is the Strategic Defense Initiative. In its place are less ambitious efforts to develop systems to protect the nation from a limited or errant intercontinental missile attack and defend US troops and ships from the proliferation of shorter-range rockets.
But the dispute rages unabated over whether even these more modest systems will work, fueled by a string of test failures. Recent studies also bolster claims that the programs are beset by technical hurdles, delays, and excessive pressure from politicians and military commanders anxious to speed their deployments.
The latest report, completed this month for the Pentagon by an independent panel led by a former Air Force chief of staff, warns of a "rush to failure" in both national and theater missile-defense programs. Compressed time-tables and insufficient testing of "hit-to-kill" antimissile interceptors could further delay the programs and produce multibillion- dollar systems that will not work, says the report.
"We need to do something to step back and evaluate where we are going," Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says of the new report. "People understand that there is a current threat and that we need to address it. That does not mean we should rush deployment."
But it is highly doubtful the report, which echoes studies released in December by the Government Accounting Office, a watchdog agency, will dent support for the programs in the GOP-run Congress or the Pentagon.
With Iran, North Korea, and China reportedly pursuing advanced missile programs and with Russia boosting its reliance on its nuclear forces, members of both parties appear unwilling to alter plans to spend some $4 billion annually through 2003 on missile defenses. Indeed, a House committee last week unanimously voted to add $147 million to the fiscal 1998 missile-defense budget. "I don't think anyone can argue that we are rushing too quickly," asserts Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania, sponsor of the supplemental appropriation. "Every sign around the world indicates that rogue nations and adversaries are developing missile capabilities."
Representative Weldon blames the problems cited by critics on a failure by the Clinton administration to adequately support missile-defense programs politically and financially, especially with funds for testing.
But other experts say neither Congress nor the White House is prepared to take the political risks of overhauling the programs. In addition to avoiding charges of being soft on defense, neither is willing to cut programs that provide jobs in critical electoral states, they say.
"They have thrown billions of dollars at these programs and they have not hit anything," says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "It's politics and pork and has little to do with security."
Lt. Col. Rick Lehner of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) says the agency concurs with much of the new report. It is "evaluating" the recommendations, including one that calls for a total overhaul of the national missile defense effort, he says.
"We have already started doing a number of things that were in the recommendations," Colonel Lehner says. But he adds that he doubts there will be major changes because of the pressure to put systems in the field.
The new report examined three theater missile-defense programs - the Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot-3, and the Navy's Theater Wide System - and the BMDO's effort to develop a limited national missile-defense system. The reviews were prompted by serious setbacks, including 13 failures in 17 tests of antimissile interceptors over the past decade.
The failures and other problems have caused major delays in the programs, boosting their costs. THAAD's price tag alone has shot from $4.3 billion to $7.7 billion. Furthermore, program managers have reduced testing in bowing to pressure to keep their efforts on schedule. This, the report says, runs contrary to long-accepted practice.
Lack of testing
In calling for an overhaul of the national missile-defense program, the report notes that the Pentagon is to choose the prime contractor within a month, even though the technology has not been proven. Furthermore, only one test of the complete system - space-based sensors, ground radars, command-and-control components and an interceptor - is to be run before the government decides in 2000 whether to build it at a cost of $5 billion.
Officials note, however, that there is substantial flexibility built into the program to allow for a delay in deployment, something that would anger conservative Republicans who want construction to begin immediately.
BMDO began work in 1996 on a system capable of downing a limited number of intercontinental missiles as they hurtle at the US, a far cry from the umbrella of space-based lasers and other futuristic weaponry envisioned by Mr. Reagan.
In 2000, the technical progress and missile threats to the US will be reassessed to determine whether the system should be built by 2003, or further development pursued.
Lehner indicated that should problems persist, the deployment would be delayed. "With new technology, you always run the risk of slippage," he says. "You may get to 2000 and say that the test results have not panned out and we don't think the technology is advanced enough to make a deployment decision."