NEEDED: SPACE DEFENSE AGAINST
The Washington Inquirer, Mar. 17, 1998
MISSILES AND ASTEROIDS
Albert L. Weeks
A recent poll showed that a large percentage of Americans do not
that the United States is totally vulnerable to a variety of attacks from
intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), whether launched accidentally
our country is likewise defenceless against an asteroid headed in Earth's
The latter danger by no means is remote. The Astrophysical
in Cambridge, MA, reported March 11 that such an outer-space object, tagged
1997 XF11, is headed in our direction. It is likely to pass to within only
30,000 miles of
our planet in the year 2028. The scientists cannot say for certain that the
not collide with Earth or if it did, how much devastation it would cause.
But they think the
object is about a mile in diameter, large enough, that is, to wreak
ecological havoc of
gargantuan proportions--perhaps on a scale resembling that caused by an
struck the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago and is believed to have
wiped out the
What can be done to be ready for both attack threats--that of ICBMs
well as outer-space intruders?
Everyone remembers President Reagan's "Star Wars" program, the
Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). When it was first proposed in 1983, it
hooted down in the Congress and the media, hence the epithet "star wars."
of politicians and politically-motivated scientists disliked the idea not
they thought the program would be too expensive and was technologically
which it appeared to be at that time.
Above all, they didn't like the idea of its challenging the heart
of the Anti-ballistic
Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972. This was an agreement signed between the then
the U.S. to prohibit deployment of ABM by either side beyond a single
permitted site (such
as Russia has today defending Moscow but which we on our part declined to
Research and development likewise were strictly limited.
The ABM Treaty was based on the assumption that if both sides--Russian and
--remain vulnerable to missile attack, neither side will hazard an attack
on the other.
However, as the Soviet threat died in 1991 and missile and nuclear
technology has begun
to spread throughout the world, this philosophy, known as "MAD" (from
Destruction), has become the object of considerable professional
scientific and military
criticism. Yet it is defended by some in Congress and by others.
For their part, the Russians insist on jointly holding to the ABM Treaty of
26 years ago.
They insist on strict compliance despite the new conditions of the global
spread of ICBM
and nuclear technologies plus the constant danger of rogue or accidental
that could threaten the U.S. The Administration has agreed with Moscow's
the Russians continue to modernize their own Moscow ABM. One day they might
acquire the means to mount a nationwide ABM for themselves, as the Soviets
attempted to do. Moreover, some of their scientists and military writers
today state in print
that such defenses are needed, to meet both threats, nuclear-missile and
Meanwhile, downsized U.S. funding under the present Administration in
Washington for a
merely ground-based "SDI" is regarded as inadequate by proponents of
space-based missile defense. Senate Majority Leader Kent Lott (R, MS),
Sens. Jim Inhofe
(R, OK), and Bob Smith (R, NH), who, indeed, are joined by a number of
and congressmen, are concerned that the U.S. is perilously neglecting its
by allowing itself to be hemmed in by the ABM Treaty. They insist that with
such threats as
those of asteroids and ICBMS, it is time for the country to increase its
efforts to research
and deploy a space-borne anti-missile defense.
Shortly before he did,
Prof. Carl Sagan,
once a vociferous opponent of SDI, nevertheless proposed erecting an
in a memorable article in "Parade" magazine.
Testing of ABM components continues under the present restrictions. But the
presently are based on ground-based components: missiles shooting at
radar-tracked from the ground. Some insist, optimally, that the U.S. should
space-borne elements resembling "battle stations" that could detect as well
Some competent scientists and former defense secretaries argue that such a
is not only technologically feasible but overdue given present threats.
They have a point.
Albert Weeks is a noted writer on defense issues and is professor emeritus
of New York University.
Postal: Albert L. Weeks
4884 Kestral Park Circle
Sarasota, FL 34231