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Down-to-Earth Defenses

AS the Gulf war graphically highlighted, the US military needs a means to defend itself and its allies from ballistic missile attack. Iraq was not unique in its capability to deliver, however inaccurately, warheads to targets hundreds of miles away. Even Bosnian Serbs claim possession of and have threatened to use older models of Soviet-made SCUD medium-range missiles.

That is why the Clinton administration is correct to strengthen the redirection of United States ballistic-missile defense efforts. With much fanfare and little warning to many in his administration, President Reagan in 1983 repackaged and boosted funding for US ballistic-missile defense research, which already was running at about $1 billion a year.

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Over the next 10 years, the US would spend upward of $30 billion on the Strategic Defense Initiative. Research ran the gamut from hypervelocity rockets and space-based sensors and lasers to complex computer networks designed to manage a titanic battle between Soviet ICBMs and an array of high-tech space- and ground-based weapons.

By 1989, President Bush shifted the program from the more exotic technologies to "Brilliant Pebbles," still space-based, but using projectiles to disable ICBMs while still in their boost phase.

In 1991, Mr. Bush shifted the program's focus yet again, this time to respond to a limited attack rather than an all-out assault.

In its current iteration, the effort is being scaled back and refocused once more. The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization will no longer report directly to the secretary of defense, but to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology.

Unlike other weapons acquisition programs, the BMDO's budget is being cut significantly from Bush's fiscal 1994 request: from $6.3 billion to about $3.8 billion, equal to last year's budget. So-called theater missile defenses would see a $705 million increase over 1993, to $1.8 billion; efforts to develop a nationwide defense would be cut $493 million from '93's level of about $1.7 billion; and research into "Brilliant Pebbles" would continue at $75 million, $145 million less than '93.

Whether Mr. Reagan's pursuit of a sheild for the US was the final economic and technological straw that broke the Soviet Union remains to be determined. Clearly the Soviets took the US effort seriously.

But just as clearly, the strategic picture has changed dramatically. The reoriented Pentagon program represents a good balance between developing the practical and researching what might be feasible.

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