Star Wars All Over Again
As early as this summer, rockets hidden in silos near this wind-swept town will give the nation its first operating defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles since the 1970's.I guess 9/11 wasn't a day that changed everything.
Although the system is not a secret, it has been revived with so little fanfare that few Americans seem to realize it exists.
Among warfare experts, it is reviving the type of bitter debate that began in the cold war, culminating in an antiballistic missile treaty. And it is inspiring the same sort of passion that arose during the national fixation with President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars effort, officially the Strategic Defense Initiative. Unlike Star Wars, which faded into the realm of misbegotten high-tech dreams, the new system relies on agile but fairly ordinary rockets to smash incoming warheads rather than nuclear-powered lasers in space. In the new debate, Pentagon planners see the system as a bulwark against the ultimate calamity, a nuclear attack, while skeptics ridicule it as a defense that will not work against a threat that does not exist.
Critics of the system, which will cost $10 billion a year for the next five years and, potentially, hundreds of billions when the full defense envisioned by the Pentagon is installed, say it is being rushed before being fully tested. The critics call it a flawed defense against the ICBM's of yesteryear, not the suicide bombers and hijacked airplanes of the world since Sept. 11.
"It's totally useless," said Dr. Richard L. Garwin, a physicist who has advised the government on security for nearly 50 years and who, in 1998, was on a panel led by Donald H. Rumsfeld, now defense secretary, to assess ballistic missile threats.
Dr. Garwin said the president was "wasting money and he's impairing our security, because it will not work against ICBM's from anyone who has it in for the United States."
Officials at the Missile Defense Agency have said the system was developed to stop what they characterize as unsophisticated threats from budding nuclear powers like North Korea, not the highly developed arsenals of Russia or China. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the election, not any imminent threat, was behind the decision to deploy before full tests.
"It's a date which obviously was set politically so they could say before the election that they've deployed a system," Mr. Levin said. "I doubt that they'll say in that announcement that they'll deploy a system which may or may not work."
Mr. Levin has also sharply criticized the administration's request for more than $500 million in the 2005 fiscal year to double its arsenal of interceptors, from 20 to 40, before any of the original batch has been tested. The first two tests of the full interceptor are scheduled for this summer.
"This is like deploying a military aircraft missing the wings, the tail and the landing gear," said Philip E. Coyle, a former chief of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon, who is a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information. "And without testing to see if that aircraft can do its mission without wings, a tail or landing gear.[Nitpicker emphasis]