Star wars has quietly come of age. Last week marked the 21st anniversary of President Reagan's speech laying out his dream of building a missile shield that would render nuclear-tipped missiles "impotent and obsolete." And the Bush Administration is plowing ahead with plans to have a rudimentary system capable of doing just that ready before this fall's election. But concerns about the system's technical capabilities--and its necessity--continue to mount.
A congressional audit recently found that the system is largely unproved and its technical challenges "remain significant." A senior Pentagon official told Congress last week that one of the missile shield's key satellite systems will cost more and take longer to get into orbit than planned. A day later, 49 retired U.S. military generals and admirals, including William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged President Bush to delay building the system until the bugs are worked out. Among other things, no one knows whether the system will work at night or in bad weather.
One problem for the military men is money. Bush wants to spend $10.2 billion on missile defense next year. The retired generals would rather see it spent securing the nation's nuclear weapons and materials and protecting ports and borders against terrorists armed with unconventional weapons. The U.S. military can already pinpoint missile launches, they noted, so any rogue state would be "risking annihilation from a devastating U.S. retaliatory strike" if it launched a missile strike from its territory or allowed terrorists to do so. That, they argued, is a better deterrent than a costly, unproved missile-defense system.
But at a time when Bush is drawing fire for not adequately protecting the nation against 9/11, deploying the missile shield may be a political necessity. The Administration insists that 9/11 points up the threat posed by rogue states working with terrorists. The Pentagon's missile-defense chief, Lieut. General Ron Kadish, told Congress that the antimissile program "is structured to deal with the enormity and complexity of the task."
--By Mark Thompson