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Missile Defense Debate Heating Up in US - 2001-09-08

President Bush is now battling to save his missile defense program from opposition Democratic efforts in Congress to cut it. That reflects the wider national debate over the value of missile defense in terms of its cost, effectiveness and impact on the rest of the world, where there is much skepticism about the program.

Missile defense is a major issue that has united Republicans behind it and Democrats against it.

At a recent press briefing, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complained of Congressional Democrats' efforts to cut one point $3 billion from the eight point three billion the Bush Administration has budgeted for missile defense. "It is very harmful. It delays things. It causes a change in the program that has been put together, which is to test things that have never been tested, to do things that this country had not looked at previously. No one could in any way characterize it as helpful," he said.

The testing has not been impressive so far, says Philip Coyle, a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information and a former top U.S. Defense Department official.

At a meeting of the Council for a Livable World, he noted tests to date have not been under realistic conditions where there is no advance warning of a missile attack. "It may be in the middle of the night when the weather is bad, when the soldiers or sailors are tired, when you do not know quite what the trajectory is, you do not quite know where it is coming from," he said. "You do not know what the target looks like. You do not know what the composition of the target cluster is. All of this prior information that we have had in tests so far you do not have all of that."

Many tests lie ahead, says Mr. Coyle, before we can be sure a bullet can hit a bullet and thus bring down an incoming missile. Since the Bush Administration seems to be in a hurry to deploy a system before the end of the first term, there will have to be a sustained series of tests, one after another. This a quite a challenge, says Mr. Coyle.

One the United States has met before, responds Henry Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier, a non-profit organization that promotes missile defense. "The tests are really just beginning in earnest. In time, they will get more complicated and more realistic. There is no question in my mind that we are about an engineering job," he said. "There is no fundamental science that is at issue in what we are trying to accomplish, and we have done far more complicated and more daunting engineering jobs before."

As always, there are the nay-sayers, says Ambassador Cooper, who served as chief U.S. negotiator with Moscow on space and defense issues. Among the skeptics, he includes members of the armed services who have problems with anything new. He cites their resistance to such innovative technologies as the cruise missile and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The sky's the limit, says Ambassador Cooper, and in fact, space-based defenses would be simpler and less costly than those on sea or land. What is needed is the political will to put them there.

Politics is what it is all about, contends Lawrence Korb, director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former top U.S. Defense Department official. Missile defense has become a litmus test for Republicans, he says. It reflects the party's traditional notion of America first. "The heartland Republicans for years wanted to use the oceans to safeguard the United States, and even when we did not have a big military, we always had a big navy," he said. "This is carrying it one step forward. The oceans cannot protect you any more. So now you are going to have a missile shield which will enable you to act unilaterally.

On the contrary, says Ambassador Cooper. Missile defense can bring nations together. The United States has no desire to act alone on such a life-saving matter.

"I believe missile defenses can strengthen our relationships with our allies and friends around the world, including the Russians, by the way. Folks forget that Boris Yeltsin made such a proposal in 1992, when I was the director of SDI [Space Defense Initiative], that we work together to build a global defense for the world community, using both SDI technology and Russian technology to do the job," he said.

That makes sense, says Ambassador Cooper. A common approach to missile defense should be on the agenda when Presidents Bush and Putin meet in November.