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.
Moreover, ballistic missiles are the least likely method a developing country would use to deliver an attack. Long-range missiles are more expensive and more technically difficult to build and deploy than other delivery systems and are less accurate. Since launches are readily detected by satellites, the US could pinpoint the origin of a missile attack and retaliate quickly.
Live coverage on CNN of the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings and the subway attack in Japan has shown us the most likely ways a radical nation or terrorist group would attack the US. These methods are low-tech, relatively cheap, and can be accurately targeted. They maximize the effect of limited arsenals and can be delivered clandestinely. Better intelligence and antiterrorism programs may block such efforts; missile defenses will not.
In fact, a crash national missile defense program would undercut US security, not improve it. Russian legislators have made it clear that if the US pursues star wars-type defenses, prospects for ratification of the START II Treaty now pending before the Russian Duma will be weakened. START II would reduce Russian strategic nuclear forces from about 8,000 to 3,000 within several years, dramatically lowering the existing missile threat to the US without launching a single interceptor. Trading START II for star wars would be foolish .
Instead of diverting billions of dollars toward a new quest for a space shield, the US should focus on programs to combat today's pressing threats. Top priorities include bringing weapon-usable uranium and plutonium supplies in the former Soviet republics under better control and speeding up the safe, verified dismantling of Russian nuclear weapons. The administration should put more pressure on countries such as China that transfer missile technology around the world.
National missile defense advocates have painted dramatic pictures of the US held hostage by hostile nations threatening to destroy our cities with long-range missiles. These scare tactics rely on exaggerated threats to advance a program without military, technical, or economic justification. Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania, who organized a congressional missile-defense caucus to build support for an SDI sequel, said as much at an industry briefing. He told missile-defense supporters, ''If you keep relying on the facts and logic, then we're going to lose this battle.''