The idea of defending the United States against a missile attack did not end when President Clinton canned the Reagan "star wars" program in 1993. Research continued on designing a defense against attack by a rogue state that might fire a missile or two at the US.
The small-scale use of the more limited Patriot missiles during the Gulf War, while not perfect, showed such a defense could work. US concern that countries such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea have attempted to develop both nuclear weapons and missiles made the program urgent.
Until this summer, however, all six tests of the Army's experimental theater missile-defense system (THAAD), which would defend a far larger area than the Patriots, had failed. Then on two occasions in June and August, the system appeared to destroy an incoming dummy missile. The Pentagon then announced it would suspend this initial testing and start building THAAD, with the aim of deploying the first missiles by 2007.
That decision, however, overruled a recommendation by senior Pentagon analyst Philip Coyle III. Director of operational tests and evaluation for the Defense Department, Mr. Coyle says the two tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico were "shaped and scripted" to boost chances of success. He doesn't accuse the Army of cheating. He merely recommends more realistic testing at the larger, more demanding Kwajalein Missile Range in the Pacific.
Pressure to speed up the program may come from concerns raised by North Korea's launch of a long-range missile over Japan last year. Another missile may be tested soon, one that may have the capability to reach Alaska, Hawaii, or perhaps more distant American targets.
If THAAD, it could presumably be used in a system to protect the entire United States. Conservatives and defense hawks are clamoring for it. President Clinton signed a bill in July to do so as soon as technology allows.
But deployment of such a system would violate the 1972 antiballistic missile (ABM) treaty with Moscow. The US is trying to negotiate with Russia to amend the treaty. But recent discussions went nowhere. And little progress is likely until after Russian parliamentary elections in December or presidential balloting next year, even after that.
Advocates of a missile-defense system accuse the Clinton administration of dragging its feet. Many of them would exercise a US option to withdraw from the ABM treaty. If Russia won't cooperate, especially in light of North Korea's missile tests, that route may be politically inescapable. But the repercussions for arms control would be severe.
Americans will have to weigh which danger is greater: a threat from a small rogue state or the dangerous consequences of US-Russia relations going sour.
Critics say the Pentagon has a habit of moving weapons systems into production before proving that a technology works, as with the infamous Bradley fighting vehicle. In this case, Defense Secretary William Cohen should resist political pressure, reconsider, and refrain from rushing THAAD to the assembly line without more rigorous tests.
The need for a missile defense is probably still a few years off. But the public's need to have confidence that it will really work is now.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society