Deep in some industrial warren, perhaps in Pyongyang, engineers carefully machine a nuclear bomb. On the other side of Asia, maybe in Tehran, chemists fill bomblets with deadly nerve gas. Farther west, let's say in Baghdad, scientists ladle toxins into a biological warhead. U.S. officials don't have, or at least won't reveal, the intelligence that proves such sinister work is afoot. But they believe it is happening. More important, they fear it is only a matter of time before one of those nations--North Korea, Iran or Iraq--lobs a missile toward the U.S.
That is why, inside a secret factory in Tucson, Ariz., U.S. scientists are crafting 55-in.-long, 120-lb. missile killers. These "exo-atmospheric kill vehicles" are designed to smash invading weapons 140 miles above the earth's surface, long before they can reach a U.S. city and kill thousands, if not millions. At the Pentagon, military officers are drafting plans for sky-scouring radars designed to stand perpetual guard against just such an attack. At the western tip of Alaska's Aleutian Islands, military surveyors assess sites at which construction of the most critical of those radars is set to begin a year from now.
With scant public debate, the U.S. is on the verge of building an ever more costly missile shield. You are forgiven the doubletake. You are not, however, back in the Reagan era with its dream of a Star Wars anti-missile defense system. Reaganites and indeed many Russians believe Ronald Reagan's threat to develop such a system contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union (a thesis examined by historian Frances FitzGerald in her recent book Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan and Star Wars and the End of the Cold War). Critics then scoffed at the viability of Star Wars. They are scoffing too at the new missile shield. The difference is this system is not only being tested but is also being demanded by a majority of the U.S. Congress, with the assent of the White House. The geopolitical implications may resurrect the cold war. Says U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan: "It could well lead to a new arms race."
Last week the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that a system with 250 land-based interceptors, backed by many congressional Republicans, would cost $60 billion--more than double the $25.6 billion the Pentagon projected for a 100-interceptor system. The U.S. space shield's satellites would detect the launch of an enemy missile and cue ground-based radars to find it. Data on its path would be downloaded into the interceptors before their launch from mainland Alaska bases, with updates radioed to them in flight. Four interceptors, fired two at a time, would be dedicated to each incoming warhead. If the first pair should miss, another pair would be fired.
The Pentagon is now in the midst of three tests; so far, the system is 1 for 2. The first test, over the Pacific last October, blasted a fake warhead to smithereens. But the second, in January, missed by about 150 yards when a "few molecules" of water froze inside a cooling pipe 0.0035 in. in diameter--the width of a human hair--and shut down the interceptor's heat-seeking sensors. A third test is set for late June. Officials say a 1-for-3 record will justify construction of the missiles. Previously the Pentagon had said it was aiming for 2 for 3.