So George Bush wants to deploy an untested missile defense system to protect Seattle (and maybe even Tacoma) against an untested North Korean missile, the

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The Next Generation

The problem with Bushs missile defense plan is that it doesnt think big enough.

So George Bush wants to deploy an untested missile defense system to protect Seattle (and maybe even Tacoma) against an untested North Korean missile, the Taepo-Dong 2, that might or might not carry the nuclear weapons that the worlds sole remaining Stalinist theme park might or might not possess.

Fine by me.

So, too, is the notion that wed learn a great deal by fielding the systems initial components. We would. Be they ever so humble, data sets is data sets. If its true that we learn more from failures than successes, were about to get very smart, indeed. And at least the Pentagon crew (who have never much cared for missile defense) are being honest when they admit that they have absolutely no idea what the final system might look like or how well it would work or what it could cost.

And that gives me hope. Because its time all sides started arguing this issue from a position of total ignorance.

Ever since Ronald Reagan first proposed a missile defense system that he had no intention of buildingwhich explains why there was no Manhattan Projectstyle crash program, no Missile Defense Corps established, no deployments of nuttin, not even a National Star Wars Scholarship Program for deserving English majorsproponents and opponents have flung the same arguments at and past each other. Sadly, both sides insist on basing their arguments on knowledge, i.e., on extrapolations of existing and unclassified missile defense technologies.

All but lost is the possibilityindeed, given the history of technological evolution, the virtual certaintyof quantum breakthroughs that could result in a far more effective, less expensive defense than anything currently imaginable. Nor need these breakthroughs come from within the program, or even the government. (Some months ago, the Missile Defense Agency put out a public request for proposals. An officer giving a briefing on the program explained that, to be eligible for consideration, a proposal could violate no more than two of the laws of physics.)

So what breakthroughs might be nice?

Two, for example. First, radar has its limits. High-altitude nuclear detonations tend to make it warm, fuzzy, and useless. Also, radar cannot differentiate between real warheads and lighter decoys in space during the critical midcourse phase, when the boosters fall away and the threat cloud hangs in ballistic trajectory. But what about using particle beams as sensors? In theory, these can jiggle the threat cloud, differentiating real-by-golly (as Rumsfeld would say) warheads from chaff, balloons, and back issues of The Sublime Thoughts of Beloved Leader. In tandem with advanced sensors, infrared or other, which can differentiate between sublime thoughts and heavy metal by temperature, it might prove workable.

Second, weaponry has issues. One of the reasons we abandoned the Ike & Namera Nike program was that only a nuclear detonation in the vicinity of the warhead during the late re-entry phase seemed effective. Popping nukes above your largest cities proved a hard sell. Now we play with kinetic energy, a.k.a. hit to kill interceptors. No explosives, so if you miss by a yard, you might as well have fired into the ground. But if the Pentagon (actually, the Energy Department) develops, as touted, a new generation of clean micronuke bunker busters, these might have more uses than merely firing into the ground.

And then theres the whole realm of directed energy weapons. Once, Strategic Defense Initiative played with shooting heavy Earth-based lasers up to space mirrors that would target the beams back down, or wherever. This proved impracticable, although the silicon gels developed for the mirrors did show some transient potential as breast-implant material. But what if nanotechnologies and advanced robotics made it possible to put small but powerful lasers and other particle weapons in space, and the fuel requirements could be solved by replenishment from reusable space vehicles, and the space-based . . .

Space.

And theres the key. Of itself, missile defense seems, and probably is, scantly more than a set of sorta-kinda-maybe-maybe-not interacting gizmos that you wouldnt want to depend on for much beyond minimal deterrence. But as part of an integrated plan for the offensive and defensive weaponization of space, drawing upon the quantum advances in space technology that are quite probable over the next decade or two, and given sufficient federal and private interest and money, the thing could work.

Are we getting ready to weaponize space? Ask Rummy, former co-chair of the U.S. Commission on Space, which in 2001 recommended that we consider, seriously, just that. Prior to 9/11, Rumsfelds major reorganization successes came in that area, including the ongoing migration of nuclear warfighting responsibilities to the Space Command. The unclassified 2002 Nuclear Posture Review also dropped some hints. And as post-Iraq defense transformation proceeds, we can expect to find out for sure.

Is missile defense feasible? Like so much else, it all depends on what your definition of is is.

Philip Gold is president of Aret顬 a Seattle-based policy and cultural affairs center. He may be reached at aretean@netscape.net.

 
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