LATE summer is a time for reruns, and Congress is programming its own: ''star wars,'' the multibillion-dollar quest for a space shield against missile attacks. The sets are different, but the plot is familiar, and ticket prices are out of this world.
When the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) show first aired a decade ago, national missile defenses were meant to be a shield against a massive Soviet nuclear attack. President Bush revised the script to focus on defending against a limited ''Red October''-type rogue attack or an accidental missile launch from Russia or China. The Clinton administration did a further rewrite, placing national defenses on the back burner and emphasizing defenses against shorter-range missiles.
This approach is too down-to-earth for the new Congress, which wants to revive epic national defenses. The House passed legislation that would set the United States on course to deploy a large-scale national missile-defense system. The Senate is considering a similar bill. Both would increase funding for missile-defense work by $600 million or more over the current budget of roughly $3 billion per year, with earmarks for old SDI favorites such as space-based lasers.
Finding a villain is tricky, since the ''evil empire'' is defunct. In fact, the US is helping fund destruction of Russian nuclear weapons and is discussing measures with China to reduce the risk of accidental or unauthorized missile launches. These are surer ways to address missile threats than trying to intercept them. Russia and China are unlikely to attack the US deliberately, even if relations deteriorate, because they would face a certain and overwhelming response.
Other nations don't pose a threat to justify Star Wars II. Some 20 developing countries have short-range missiles or space-launch vehicles, but only Israel, India, and Saudi Arabia - none of which are on our enemies list - have deployable systems with ranges over 600 kilometers. North Korea has conducted one partial-range test of a 1,000 kilometer-range missile but does not have an operational version after six to seven years of work and lacks the capability to build missiles with longer ranges.