Going Ballistic

The Nike missile site in the Marin Headlands may be a museum piece, but defensive missile systems are alive and well, not to mention more costly than ever.

Last March, congressional Republicans introduced legislation known, patriotically enough, as the Defend America Act of 1996. The bill called for a scaled-down version of Ronald Reagan's aborted Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" plan. It proposed building a national missile defense system consisting of radar, interceptor missiles, and a satellite tracking network by the year 2003, at a cost somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion. Not to be outgunned, Bill Clinton has put his weight behind a slightly less ambitious plan that would develop a "test-ready" missile defense system within three years, and then deploy it if deemed necessary.

In war, as in sports, the best offense is usually a good defense. But in war, the defense is rarely good enough. Ever since the Nike anti-aircraft system was developed in the 1950s, the American military has chased the elusive dream of designing an airtight missile defense against enemy attack, and found the goal always just out of reach.

The fundamental problem with all defensive systems is that they quickly become obsolete. Shields have always spawned more dangerous spears. The Marin Headlands are filled with defensive battery sites dating back to the Civil War that had to be abandoned as enemy offensive weapons improved. Forts built to withstand cannonball attacks were rendered obsolete with the advent of deep-penetrating rifled artillery; artillery in turn was outflanked by aerial attack; anti-aircraft guns that could shoot down planes were outmoded by guided missiles like the Nike; the Nike was mothballed by ballistic missiles.

Offensive countermeasures for the proposed "mini-Star Wars" defensive missile system are already being devised, even before the system has been built. One idea is to equip incoming missiles with multiple decoys that would render the so-called "Peace Shield" as permeable as Swiss cheese. Sooner than its boosters imagine, the new Star Wars system may join Nike on the large and costly scrapheap of American missile defenses.

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