For years, the idea of being able to shoot down enemy missiles - hit a bullet with a bullet - has remained a distant technological dream. That's kept it far down the list of military and diplomatic concerns, despite the billions of dollars spent to achieve it.
But the Bush administration has brought it to the forefront, and in the process missile defense now stands as a major point of argument in how the US relates to its allies in Europe and in Asia.
As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush promised "to build effective missile defenses, based on the best available options, at the earliest possible date," making this one of his top military priorities. Before he became Mr. Bush's Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld headed a congressionally sponsored commission that found nations such as North Korea and Iran could soon have the capability to produce ballistic missiles armed with chemical, biological, or nuclear warheads - weapons of mass destruction.
Since then, Mr. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell have suggested that the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which governs defenses against attacking missiles, might have to be scrapped. In his Senate confirmation hearings, Rumsfeld called the ABM Treaty "ancient history."
European countries in the 19-member NATO worry that this could provoke another arms race in a post-cold-war world that has become more complex. There's also concern that a unilateral move by the US to construct a national missile defense (NMD) could "decouple" the US from its European allies, weakening a body that has helped protect much of the world for half a century.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson acknowledged as much this week in meeting with US officials here. "Many Europeans ... continue to fear the effects of the United States proceeding with deployment of a missile-defense system," he told a forum sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.
Halfway around the world, the Bush administration's goal of accelerating an NMD system has stirred discussions over the future of the Korean peninsula.
Meeting in Seoul last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung expressed skepticism about US plans for an NMD system. In a joint communique, the two leaders described the ABM Treaty as "a cornerstone of strategic stability."
In Washington this week, Mr. Kim and Bush downplayed differences over missile defense. Still, Bush described their White House talks as "frank," diplomatic code indicating all is not sweetness and light.
The issue reflects fundamentally different goals for the region. Kim emphasizes what he calls a "sunshine" policy of rapprochement with North Korea. Bush's defense and foreign policy team stresses North Korea's apparently growing ability to threaten not only South Korea but other countries as well.
"They still have weapons of mass destruction and missiles that can deliver those," Mr. Powell said at the White House this week. "So we have to see them as a threat."
Over the years, Pentagon planning for missile defense has become more modest. Gone are the days of space-based lasers blasting Soviet missiles, as envisioned in former President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative - which was quickly dubbed "star wars." Most experts say that such a system - even if it worked - could be overwhelmed by thousands of multiple warheads or fooled by decoys.
Instead, current planning is for ground-based antimissile missiles poised to protect the US, and perhaps other countries, against an accidental launch or sneak attack by a "rogue state" such as North Korea, Iran, or even Libya (which was recently reported to have acquired missiles capable of hitting Europe).
But even these plans for a scaled-back missile-defense system have been confounded in practice. Two of three test firings have failed to hit their target. And the General Accounting Office recently warned Congress that a crucial satellite-surveillance system designed to detect enemy missiles "is at high risk" of being late, more costly than anticipated, and unlikely to perform as advertised. The GAO (Congress's investigative arm) also reported that the system's software would not be ready until three years after the first satellites are scheduled to be launched.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, who chairs the defense appropriations subcommittee, says he finds this "very troubling."
More troublesome at the moment may be the diplomatic effects of the Bush administration's focus on national missile defense as a key element in its review of the US military.
Spurgeon Keeny, head of the private Arms Control Association in Washington, says it's "in clear violation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
"Unless the United States backs off from its explicit threat to withdraw from the ABM Treaty and its implicit threat to eschew arms-control treaties that would in any way restrict US freedom of action, the international community is unlikely to follow the US lead when it jeopardizes other countries' economic and political interests," says Mr. Keeny, a former senior government official responsible for arms control and nuclear-policy issues.
Nations resigned to US plans
For the moment, European members of NATO are resigned to the US pressing ahead with missile defense - especially if, as the Bush administration now promises, it will consult with its allies along the way. And, says NATO Secretary-General Robertson, the full alliance remains in agreement on its "common values, shared risks, and shared burdens."
"These debates, as tough as they can be, are not about first principles," he says. "The first principles still hold."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor