The missile-defense plans of today's Pentagon are far less ambitious than those envisioned by the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative. Out, is the concept of an impenetrable domed shield for the US. In, is possible limited security against an accidental launch or rogue power such as North Korea.
Yet 30 years after "Star Wars" roiled world geopolitics, US missile defense remains a contentious issue, both in Washington and abroad.
Support for missile defense in Congress remains mixed. Meanwhile, Russia continues to hammer at Bush administration plans to deploy missile-defense elements in Europe with rhetoric that harks back to US-Soviet cold war days.
In an interview released Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that he might respond by re-aiming nuclear weapons at Europe.
Military sites on the Continent could be targeted with "ballistic or cruise missiles or maybe a completely new system," said Putin.
So far the US has placed 17 long-range interceptor missiles at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force, Calif., according to US Missile Defense Agency officials. This system is still under development, though it was raised to operational status during a recent North Korean missile test.
In Europe, plans call for ten interceptors based in Poland, with a radar in the Czech Republic.
Overall, the Missile Defense Agency has conducted more than 35 major tests, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering III, Missile Defense Agency director, told Congress in April.
"Overall, since 2001 we have built a record of 26 successful hit-to-kill engagements in 34 attempts," said Gen. Obering.
This year the Pentagon is requesting $8.9 billion in missile defense funds, with $7.1 billion of that devoted to developing near-term capabilities, and $1.8 billion earmarked to develop defenses against future threats. Missile defense has enthusiastic boosters on Capitol Hill. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said on April 25 that "after nearly 25 years and over $90 billion spent, I believe we can finally say that ... we have turned a corner. The United States has a [missile defense] system in place that could be operational if needed."
But other lawmakers remain skeptical, particularly in light of Russia's continued objections. The House Appropriations Conmmitee, for example, struck from its version of the defense-funding bill money for the placement of interceptor missiles in Poland. The Senate Armed Services Committee has made a similar cut.
"Congress is correct to question whether US resources are best spent on a questionable ballistic missile defense program, or better spent on securing our nation‚s borders, ports and railways against another 9/11-type attack," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D) of Florida, at a May 3 missile defense hearing.
It's true that the Pentagon has made strides in missile defense development, say some critics of the system. But they claim those advances are limited.
Flight tests of the interceptor have become increasingly complex, for example, in regards to communications between radars, command-and-control personnel, and missile emplacements, says Philip Coyle, who was director of Pentagon Operational Test and Evaluation during the Clinton administration.
But the tests themselves are actually simpler than they used to be, according to Coyle. Few decoys or countermeasures are used to try and fool the system's sensors, for example. That makes it easier for the hit-to-kill interceptor missile to hone in on it target.
"It's sort of like having a basketball team that practices more and more complex plays – but doesn't have anybody who can shoot real well," says Coyle, who is now a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information (CDI).
The Pentagon says that the system has to begin somewhere, and that the addition of further defensive layers, such as quickly deployable Aegis Navy cruisers equipped with upgraded missiles, will gradually increase capabilities.
In any case, the Pentagon is no longer trying to develop a missile defense capable of blunting a superpower's launch of nuclear warheads, say US officials.
Cold war talk
With its plans for Europe, the US is just trying to have a defense in place by the time Iran develops long-range missiles, around 2015, according to US intelligence estimates.
President Putin's continued vehemence about the system appears to indicate that Russia believes the defense is also aimed at them. Theoretically, a capable defense could provide enough of a shield against Russia's now-diminished nuclear forces so that the US develops a first-strike nuclear capability.
Russia may also see US missile defense plans in geopolitical terms. By placing elements of the system in former Soviet satellite nations of Eastern Europe, the US would be pushing its forces right up to Russia's doorstep.
"It may be the principle of the thing that bothers them more than anything," says Mr. Coyle.