HOW swiftly attitudes change in war. Just before the shooting started in the Middle East, military pundits expressed gloom about Iraq's Scud missiles, which, they said, were unstoppable. The common wisdom was that there was no way to intercept a ballistic missile. Since the 1950s, when ballistic missiles first joined the world's arsenals, they had been called ``the ultimate weapon.'' Sure enough, within 24 hours of the first shots being fired, Iraq began using the Scud missiles as political weapons, firing them into Israeli cities in a desperate attempt to shatter the United Nations coalition by tormenting the Israelis into striking back.
The good news is that it quickly became clear that the Patriot anti-missile system does an effective job of shooting down Iraqi-launched Scud missiles. There is a defense against ``the ultimate weapon'' - at least this short-range, rather inaccurate version of it. The bad news is that many third-world nations are arming themselves with missiles that have longer ranges and carry heavier payloads than the Scud.
Iraq's Husayn missile, a modified Scud with a range of 375 miles, can reach the capitals of Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as all of Syria, Jordan, and Israel. The Saudis have bought Chinese CCS-2 missiles, with a 1,700-mile range, capable of striking anywhere from Rome to New Delhi. Israel, widely believed to already possess nuclear weapons, has developed its own Jericho II missile, which can reach virtually anywhere in the Mideast from eastern Libya to western Iran.
The balance of missile power will not stop where it is. Missile technology is available to virtually any nation that wants it.
Libya, South Africa, Brazil, and other nations are pushing to develop missile arsenals, in many cases aided by China, which has even attempted to find ways to smuggle arms to Iraq, despite having agreed to the UN arms embargo against that nation.
Meanwhile, there are mixed signals coming from Washington and elsewhere in regard to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the program to develop defenses against ballistic missiles. Shortly before the shooting started in the Middle East, the Congress decided that SDI could be slowed to a virtual halt. Even though the Soviet Union is modernizing its own strategic missile arsenal, the Congress wanted SDI to stick to ground-based systems and forget about developing space-based missile interceptors.
With the evident success of the Patriot system, President Bush has called for redirecting SDI toward technologies that can meet the threat of third-world missile arsenals rather than the existing Soviet fleets of ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles.
When SDI was first proposed in 1983 by President Reagan, it was dubbed ``Star Wars'' by skeptics. Many prominent scientists - most of whom had worked all their lives on nuclear bomb development and the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction - were aghast at the thought of a defense that would shoot down the missiles carrying the bombs.
They said that it was technically impossible and even if it was possible it would be too expensive. They preferred the policy of MAD, in which we promise to destroy the USSR if they fire the missiles that will destroy us. They still prefer this policy of mutual suicide.
BUT the world changes. The cold war has thawed considerably, although the Soviet Union still possesses the world's largest arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons, and it seems increasingly unclear just who is in charge in the Kremlin.
The ultimate goal professed by Reagan was a shield that could protect the people of the US against a full-scale Soviet missile attack. Reagan even promised to share such a defense with the USSR, so that the existing policy of mutual nuclear suicide could be replaced by a defense that defends human lives. Such a system, based on satellites orbiting the earth, would be global in nature. It could be used to protect any nation against missile attack from anywhere. That should remain as our goal as long a s any nation possesses ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. But there are nearer, shorter-term goals that are easier to accomplish and important to pursue. It is easier, technologically, to build ground-based defenses against small arsenals of short-range missiles than to build a global defense system that protects against superpower arsenals of ICBMs and SLBMs.
If disarmament treaties can be made to work so the threat of a Soviet nuclear strike dwindles away, then there will be no need to deploy the full panoply of satellites armed with anti-missile weaponry that SDI originally envisioned. Yet, until those long-range missiles are demolished, SDI must be pursued with all possible vigor.
In the meantime, the fruits of this emerging technology will provide better and better defenses against the missiles already in the hands of regional powers, and the newer missiles they are developing.
There are no ``ultimate weapons.'' The emerging technologies being developed under the SDI program offer the chance to blunt the military power of ballistic missiles, thereby reducing their political power and their usefulness as blackmail or terror weapons.
There is historic irony in all this. It has always been easier to negotiate away a military capability once it was shown that the capability has lost its power. By building defenses against missiles we hasten the day when the negotiators can begin scrapping the world's missile arsenals.