When a missile hurtling through outer space was intercepted and destroyed over the Pacific on Saturday night, the successful test may have moved the United States a step closer to building a system to defend all 50 states against limited missile attacks.
In all likelihood, the GOP-run Congress will now use the test to pressure President Clinton to approve the deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system, a decision he will make next summer.
Advocates say such a system is needed to protect the United States from an errant launch by Russia or China, or from a chemical, biological, or nuclear strike by "rogue" nations like Iran or North Korea, which are developing long-range missiles.
But critics say the threat is exaggerated, and they worry that this latest demonstration of America's technological prowess may deal a setback to global nuclear-disarmament efforts. Relations with China and Russia could sour, these experts warn, as those two nations fret that the US system may neutralize their strategic deterrents. As a result, Russia may reverse cuts in its huge nuclear force, and China may decide to enlarge its arsenal.
"What the world looks like 10 years from now is hard to say, but it would probably be a world that's got more nuclear weapons than it has now," warns John Pike, an expert with the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based arms-control organization.
In Saturday's $100 million test, a modified Minuteman missile, fired from California just after 10 p.m., was destroyed 140 miles above the earth by an interceptor known as the exoatmospheric kill vehicle, or EKV. The EKV was launched 4,300 miles away in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Fired 20 minutes apart, the projectiles were traveling about 8,000 miles an hour when they collided.
Moreover, the EKV was able to differentiate between the real target and two decoys, the kinds of countermeasures Iran and North Korea may be developing.
The 121-pound EKV contains no explosives. Instead, it destroys its target by ramming it at such a high speed that both disintegrate. Built by the Raytheon Corp., the device is lofted atop a missile, locks onto the heat emitted by its target, and is then steered into it by small rockets.
The test was a boost for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), the Pentagon agency overseeing development of a limited missile-defense system and theater missile defenses (TMD) - systems intended to shield ground, naval, or air forces from missile attacks. The US has spent some $50 billion on the programs in the 20 years since President Reagan proposed a Strategic Defense Initiative to develop a shield against all-out nuclear attack. That vastly bigger effort has since been abandoned.
Proponents say the US needs both TMD and NMD systems, given the post-cold-war proliferation of long- and short-range missiles, and of the know-how to make nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Critics argue that the US can achieve the same protections through arms-control accords and diplomatic initiatives.
Until this year, most tests to intercept missiles had failed. But the EKV test was the BMDO's fifth successful interception this year. Four TMD interceptors also hit their targets.
The BMDO plans to conduct two more EKV tests before Mr. Clinton makes his deployment decision. It would then conduct 16 more tests before the preliminary NMD system is built in 2005, at a cost of $10.5 billion. Under the current plan, the system would be based in Alaska and consist of 100 interceptors, tracking radars, a command-and-control network, and space-based sensors to detect launches.
The BMDO must test the complete system, probably in April, before Clinton makes his decision. In determining whether to proceed, Clinton must also consider two other factors: how the decision will affect Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign and how it will affect US relations with China and Russia.
Building an NMD system would necessitate changing the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and the administration last month began an intensive effort to win Moscow's approval of such changes. The treaty, a keystone of deterrence that assures massive retaliation should one side launch an atomic attack, requires the US to base its system in Grand Forks, N.D. It also bans national antimissile defenses, limiting them to areas such as a national capital. Moscow is currently protected by one.
The Kremlin has so far refused to accept changes in the treaty, despite American assurances that the NMD system is intended to protect the US from attack by rogue nations. Cash-strapped Russia can no longer afford its current arsenal and is seeking a new accord with the US that would restrict them both to no more than 1,500 warheads apiece. Each now has about 6,000 warheads on hair-trigger alert.
Some experts say Russia, which is depending more on nuclear weapons for security because its conventional forces have deteriorated, could reconsider reducing its arsenal. "We were able to survive for 40 years without ballistic-missile defenses because of deterrence. Now we are building a system because of phantom threats, and we are willing to risk our central strategic relationship with Russia," says Bill Arkin, an independent defense analyst.
Henry Sokolski, director of the Washington-based Non-Proliferation Policy Center, says the only way to ensure an effective NMD system is through cuts in Russian warheads. To achieve that, he says, the US should allow Moscow to take part in developing NMD technologies and to extend coverage of the US system to Russia.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society