EIGHT years after the "star wars" program was launched by
President Reagan the United States is taking a big step toward
actual deployment of a limited defense against ballistic missiles.
The system would be designed to deal only with isolated missile
launches - a far cry from the perfect astrodome shield originally
envisioned by Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proponents. But,
if erected, it would mark a major shift in US nuclear weapons
policy, which has long shunned defenses and emphasized the
superpower standoff of mutual assured destruction.
The step is contained in the 1992 defense bill now nearing final
approval in Congress. Senate and House negotiators have agreed that
the legislation will explicitly call for deployment of a missile
defense system that is consistent with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic
The House in particular has long been a hotbed of SDI
opposition. But as the program has been scaled back, shifting from
visions of space lasers to ground-based rocket interceptors, House
opposition has been muted. Now the question isn't whether to build
defenses, but how.
"There's a consensus now on defenses" in Congress that has
developed without fanfare, says a key congressional aide. In order
to reach this consensus, a shift in the pecking order of perceived
threats to US national security was necessary.
The possibility of an all-out, surprise nuclear attack from the
Soviet Union, once at the top of the threat list, is now down much
closer to the bottom. Its place has been taken by so-called
"limited strike" scenarios, such as an accidental or rogue launch
of a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a terror
strike by a third-world nation with ballistic-missile technology.
As shown by the success of the Patriot missile in Saudi Arabia, the
US already has technology that, if refined, is capable of dealing
with the threat of a limited strike.
In contrast, defenses against a large Soviet attack would have
necessarily included a technology much more difficult to perfect -
some type of space weapon able to hit rocket boosters on the rise.
President Bush never has seemed as committed to the star-wars
program as was his predecessor. In the light of changing threats to
the US, Mr. Bush last January officially refocused the SDI program
away from comprehensive defense toward what he termed "G-PALS
Global Protection Against Limited Strikes.
Shortly thereafter, US Sen. …