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What's the big idea with this missile defense thing?
by: Mike Barkacs
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Contrary to popular opinion, the major debate of the nation right now should not be who gets to stay another week on a not so deserted island. While our lazy and complacent society happily occupies itself with Survivor and the other whiles of summer, the decision which will shape American defense and foreign policy for the next century is being considered with little input from the American public.

Don't think this debate is worth bothering about? As it stands now, your country is prepared to blow $60 billion on an inadequate missile defense plan which, even in the unlikely event it ever becomes workable, will be obsolete almost as soon as it is deployed. 

On the other hand, the once huge technological edge we've enjoyed since the end of World War II shrinks everyday. In a few more years we can add such nations as North Korea and Iraq to the list of countries with the capability of reaching our shores with nuclear weapons. In time that list will only get longer. Sure, we could still threaten to blow any country, foolish enough to bomb us, to oblivion, but should that be the best defense we can muster after all this time? Will that stance even be effective against these new threats?

About twenty years ago and just on the brink of senility, Ronald Reagan came up with the Star Wars defense plan, which, supposedly, would shield us from any missile attacks. Like most things given enough time, this idea is not nearly as far-fetched as it once sounded. Most scientists now agree that some version of the plan is not only plausible, but eminently workable.

Just not the plan that the Clinton administration is currently pursuing. The idea we are testing right now amounts to trying to shoot down individual warheads after they are well on their way to hitting the targets and have closing speeds of 15,000 mph. The whole shaky system relies on ground based radar systems which could be disrupted before firing any missiles. So, if we can overcome the numerous problems inherent in this approach, and the attacker shows the decency to only launch a couple missiles our way, and sends them alone without any distracting decoys, and forgets to take out the radar grid first, then we'll have one shot at it to save ourselves. 

At least two of our leading rocket scientists have spoken out against this plan as being ill conceived and impossible to deploy. One has been slapped with a lawsuit by the State Department to quiet her down. Dr. Ted Postol is another such opponent, but he still maintains he can develop a so-called boost phase system. His idea is to attack the missiles shortly after launching, while they're still attached to the relatively slow rocket booster (think space shuttle lift-off), which carries them into space. This is the plan currently espoused by George W. Bush. While this system is at least plausible, it is far more expensive and is a blatant violation of the 1972 ABM treaty we signed with the Soviet Union.

One gets the feeling that Clinton's heart isn't really into any sort of missile defense. The Republicans claim he's simply carrying out these $100 million tests that keep failing to keep Gore from seeming to be soft on defense. Thus bolstered, Gore could then go on to win the Presidency and scuttle the plan safely. There may be something to these accusations. It seems to be apparent to everyone except the administration that their plan is fatally flawed; yet they blindly trudge on, ignoring any dissent.

If it's not just political posturing by the Democrats, they're certainly going about the development of the plan all wrong. They announce deadlines and even the date of final deployment as if they're building a highway or something. The technology involved in this plan has never been used before and it is still far from certain if the science behind it is even sound. About all you can do in this case is tell the scientists what the goal is and see what they can come up with. This is a long and continuously evolving process, and can't be ordered as if it's a new car sitting on a lot.

So is there time, and is it even worth pursing anyway? If we start to earnestly develop a system that looks like it might work, wouldn't these rogue nations now trying to build missiles only desperately speed up their efforts? They would realize their window of opportunity to deal a lethal blow to the American bully is closing. It would almost certainly start another kind of space race with our opponents holding a decided advantage.

No other country in the world would be pleased to see America come up with this defense. The initial reaction of countries like China and Russia would probably be to increase the number of warheads in their arsenals, figuring they'll have to launch more to ensure any kind of success. That'll only decrease stability for everyone. In the event we ever perfected the plan and could eliminate any possibility of a missile attack, we'd rule the universe--but the rest of the world finds us intolerably hard to put up with as it is. We'd be an island. Respected and feared, maybe, but loathed by the entire world. 

The discoveries and advancements we'd make along the way would benefit society in unexpected ways, as it always does when we put our best minds on a problem and throw masses of money at them. With our present prosperity, we can afford these dreams and eventually make them reality, but is this the way we want to ensure our future? 

I do know I'd much prefer having a strong and decisive leader for a President to lead us through this whole mess, rather than one of the wannabes about to take over. It would also be nice if the People, whose voice is supposed to dictate the actions of this country, could be bothered to tell them how they might like their future to unfold. 

Other Columns By Mike Barkacs

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