Congress this week is expected to approve the deployment of a national missile defense system - a scaled-down version of the Reagan-era "star wars" plan - underscoring growing bipartisan concern over the threat of ballistic-missile strikes from rogue states.
But a limited US missile shield is by no means inevitable, even with backing from Capitol Hill. The feasibility of missile interceptors must first be determined, something that tests in space this year and next will help gauge. The Clinton administration has postponed a decision on deployment until June 2000, after the tests.
Moreover, the bills now before the Senate and House do not allocate new funds for the multibillion-dollar antimissile system. But by stating unequivocally that it is "the policy of the United States" to erect the missile defenses, the bills indicate that installment is no longer a question of "if" but of "when."
During debate on the bills, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers voiced alarm over recent signs that the United States is more vulnerable than previously believed to ballistic-missile attacks by "rogue" nations such as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran.
"In the very near future, perhaps within a few months, erratic leaders, tyrants of rogue regimes, will control ballistic missiles... that can reach our national territory," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut on the Senate floor.
"The threat is real. We've got to do something about it as quickly as possible," he warned, urging more fellow Democrats to join him in supporting the National Missile Defense Act of 1999. The House is scheduled to vote March 18 on a similar bill.
China's missile program, accelerated by alleged Chinese theft of US nuclear-warhead designs, is also cited as an emerging "hostile threat," said Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina.
Heightened concern over poor US preparedness to counter a missile threat - fueled by North Korea's launch last August of an unexpectedly advanced missile - led the Clinton administration to announce in January it will more than double funding for the Pentagon's National Missile Defense (NMD) program, for a total of $10.5 billion through 2005.
UNDER the Clinton plan, the US military is developing a system to protect all 50 states from a small number of incoming missiles. Projected to cost $12.5 billion, the initial system would include radar and 20 interceptor missiles bearing "kill vehicles" that would ram an approaching enemy warhead. The ground-based interceptors would be located in North Dakota, Alaska, or both.
The Pentagon plans to stage the first of four intercept test flights in June, with a dummy warhead fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and a "kill vehicle" launched from a missile range in the Pacific.
The NMD system evolved from the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) - known as "star wars" - launched by President Reagan in 1983. NMD retains some of the core components of SDI, although it is much smaller in scope and has different aims.
SDI was a massive program to defend against a full-fledged Soviet missile attack. It envisioned hundreds of interceptors and multiple layers of defense, and has cost an estimated $50 billion since the mid-1980s.
But as the cold war waned in the 1990s, US defense leaders began to see the greatest danger as a small missile attack launched by terrorists or fired unauthorized by Russia or China.
Still, many defense experts question whether the scaled-back NDM plan under consideration will work. It could eventually block a small number of single-warhead missiles, experts say, but would not be effective against multiple warheads or warheads camouflaged by decoys or smuggled in by ship. "Chances are you will miss," says Tom Collina at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
Other critics say the threat is exaggerated, asserting that NDM is driven by political goals, business interests, and an internal military rivalry for defense dollars. "It's a cabal of politicians and military and industrial factions, all of whom have a tremendous stake in this program," says retired US Navy Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information here.
Despite such criticisms, in recent years congressional Republicans have embraced the idea of a limited national missile defense, making it a central goal of the GOP Contract With America in 1994. In pushing NMD as a top agenda item, they hope to strengthen their hand over Democrats in the 2000 presidential race. The GOP has urged passage of the bills this week to send an immediate message of US resolve, not only to potential enemies but to the American public.
The Senate bill, which establishes that the US will deploy a national missile defense "as soon as technologically possible," aims to "correct a defense policy that leaves us vulnerable to a serious and growing threat," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, sponsor of the Senate bill.
For their part, congressional Democrats and the White House this year have warmed toward NMD, also acutely aware that the program could emerge as a major issue in next year's campaign, analysts say.
But some Democrats want to attach conditions to NMD deployment, namely to first ensure that it works, is cost effective, and does not jeopardize progress in reducing Russia's nuclear arsenal by unilaterally violating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
The Senate bill, which Clinton has threatened to veto, "puts at risk our decades-long effort to reduce strategic offensive nuclear weapons in Russia and it increases the likelihood that these weapons will proliferate to rogue states," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan.