On the Brink of National Missile Defense

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E ver since President Reagan delivered his famous 1983 speech proposing an impenetrable shield that would protect the entire United States from an all-out attack by the Soviet Union, the issue of national missile defense has been infused to an unusual degree with partisan politics.

Many Democrats still deride the vision as a "Star Wars" fantasy, noting that even after spending more than $60 billion on research and development the United States is no closer to fielding the kind of space- and land-based shield envisioned by Reagan. Republicans counter by arguing that the massive research program conducted as part of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative was instrumental in convincing the Soviets that they could not win the Cold War.

Changes in the political dynamic and the threat from ballistic missiles, however, have conspired to push the United States very close this year to deciding to deploy a national missile-defense system that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost another $60 billion. If key Republican lawmakers have their way, the United States will eventually field a much more robust and ambitious missile-defense system that includes sea- and space-based elements and could cost well in excess of $100 billion. That's good news for prime contractor Boeing and a host of other defense and high-tech companies involved in the national missile-defense effort.

One critical element of the equation that has changed is the threat posed by "rogue nations" such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. In the mid-1990s, many experts believed it would be at least a decade before such rogue nations could acquire intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. That assumption was challenged, however, by the July 1998 release of a report by a congressional commission, which put the threat horizon at closer to five years, and warned that the United States could easily be caught off guard given the accelerated proliferation of missile technology.

As if to punctuate the commission's findings with a thunderclap, on Aug. 31, 1998, North Korea launched a long-range missile on a ballistic trajectory over Japan. Given North Korea's nuclear ambitions and willingness to proliferate missile technology, that test demonstrated that the direct threat to the United States posed by developing countries' missiles was no longer just a theoretical possibility. "There's no question the report and the North Korean missile test over Japan caught our attention, changed some minds, and crystallized the feeling that missile defense is something we have to focus on sooner rather than later," says a knowledgeable Clinton administration official. "While politics also played a part in our decisions on national missile defense, the politics started from that realization that the threat is fast approaching."

The degree to which the commission's report and North Korean missile launch dramatically changed the political dynamic of the missile debate was evident when Congress again took up the issue last year. Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation that for the first time made it the official policy of the United States to deploy a national missile-defense system as soon as technologically feasible. President Clinton signed the legislation and set a deadline of this summer for a decision on whether or not to begin constructing a system in order to make a 2005 deadline for initial operational capability. Since that time the developmental system has been tested in three flight tests, successfully intercepting a target missile in October, but failing in tests in January and July. President Clinton has promised to make a decision later this year on whether to deploy a limited national missile-defense system composed of 100 interceptors and a radar site in Alaska.

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