New questions are being raised about the program to develop a system to defend the United States against missile attacks. President Bush has vowed to push ahead with the project, but members of Congress are concerned about controlling costs.
After a lull following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the debate is heating up again with critics saying the program is too expensive and technically difficult.
There could be no better way to get a feeling for the debate over missile defense than to sit in on a Congressional hearing looking into how much money is being spent on the project.
On Capitol Hill recently, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, appeared before the Senate Armed Services committee to defend budget requests for continuing development and testing. "We have asked for a total of $6.7 billion for fiscal year 2003," he said, "which is slightly less than last year."
However, lawmakers quickly zeroed in on one of the key questions being asked; namely, how effective a missile defense system will be against a range of potential threats. Here is an exchange between Senator Jack Reed, and Lieutenant General Kadish:
Reed: So, you're designing a system today that will counter these very sophisticated threats we know are possible to deploy?
Kadish: "We are designing a system that will be increasingly capable, over time, to handle threats that come up. That doesn't mean we have a grand design against all threats right out of the package."
What Lieutenant General Kadish was saying underscores a misconception about the missile defense plan — that it will result in a mostly error-free system capable of repelling any threat from any kind of foe.
The concept of missile defense is not new. In the 1980s, former President Ronald Reagan proposed what came to be known as "Star Wars." In theory, it would have used a system of space-based laser weapons to destroy incoming missiles aimed at the United States.
The Clinton administration favored a land-based missile defense system. President Bush expanded the effort to what is called a "layered" system of land and sea-based missiles, laser weapons on airplanes, and space-based satellites. But Bush administration missile defense plans, are in many ways no less controversial than "Star Wars."
U.S. administrations have been concerned not only about possible accidental nuclear launches by China and Russia, but also by so-called rogue states, such as North Korea, that acquire nuclear weapons and delivery technology.
Named as part of an "axis of evil" by President Bush, along with Iraq and Iran, North Korea threatened this week to retaliate for any use of nuclear weapons against it by the United States. These three nations were among a list of seven countries that are part of Pentagon nuclear contingency planning.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, voices opposing missile defense appeared to subside, as attention focused on defending against conventional terrorism. However, the debate has now begun anew, with opponents claiming that missile defense has lost its purpose.
Critics also say that in the wake of September 11, nuclear, chemical or biological attacks are far less likely to be delivered by missiles. What then, they ask, is all the money being spent for?
Lawmakers are making it clear they want full disclosure from the Pentagon. In this exchange, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd pressed Pentagon official Pete Aldridge to pledge that Congress will be fully informed:
Byrd: Mr. Secretary, do you believe that providing this information to Congress constitutes an incumbence? Does it constitute an excessive burden on the missile defense agency?
Aldridge: "No sir."
Byrd: Categorically, are you saying no?
Aldridge: "No sir."
Chris Madison is director of the Missile Defense Project for the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He says there is a "gap" between what the administration and Pentagon planners say they can do and what is technologically feasible. Cost is also a major factor. "We have no idea what the cost will be," he said, "because the administration is years away from even deciding what is is actually going to deploy. And so, the cost is just kind of a big question mark."
The Bush administration says the events of September 11 underscore the vulnerability of the United States. It says missile defense is necessary to defend not only U.S. territory, but U.S. forces deployed around the world, as well as friends and allies.
Critics say continuing the program will complicate arms discussions with Russia, and may actually encourage so-called rogue nations to move faster to acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.