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House passes missile-defense bill

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 03/19/99

WASHINGTON - When an Army missile slammed into a test target earlier this week, intercepting a fake warhead over New Mexico, officials cheered and said the significance could ''not be overstated.''

But in Washington, where Congress was debating a system to protect the continent from missile attack, the New Mexico test underlined a growing reality: Successful missile interceptions are rare. And the technology for a national defense system barely exists.

Yesterday, the House overwhelmingly passed a national missile-defense bill, 317-105, responding to warnings that emerging nations could soon be capable of an attack on the United States. The Senate passed a similar measure, 97-3, the day before. Differences in the bills must be reconciled by a House-Senate conference committee.

Both bills were broad and vague, declaring more of a national-security mindset than a concrete strategy for carrying out the program, which has been in development for years. Its main focus is on developing a heat-seeking missile that could detect a foreign missile, chase it as it traveled outside the Earth's atmosphere, then destroy it by ramming into it. As currently envisioned, the US missiles would be based in North Dakota and Alaska.

And yet the joy of officials in New Mexico, who admitted they had not expected the test missile to work, highlighted the technological hurdles of getting a precise mechanism to succeed, even as it presented opponents political ammunition to fight the bill.

''We've spent very significant amounts of money getting to a point that still leaves a long journey to travel,'' said Senator John F. Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

''We have less than 13 percent success ratio on unsophisticated tests,'' said Representative John F. Tierney, Democrat of Salem. ''We're trying to get a commitment to deploy before there's any technology.''

So far, the United States has spent more than $40 billion in research and development and has conducted just 15 missile interception tests outside the Earth's atmosphere. Of those, only two succeeded, and they weren't conducted with the actual missiles under consideration now. They also used preprogrammed computer coordinates to locate the target, military analysts said.

Further tests are expected to be conducted this year. But it could be anywhere from three to 10 years before a complete umbrella shield is in place over all 50 states, according to defense analyst John Pike, who said the New Mexico test was an unremarkable development, considering the vast amounts of technology the Army still lacks.

Although no one argues the United States should ignore the threat of missile attack from abroad, many Democrats also see myriad problems with the plan in the area of foreign relations. One fear is that it could upset the delicate balance of international nuclear power. Russia is a particular concern, especially as its Parliament debates whether to ratify an arms reduction treaty.

But for political reasons, and in reaction to a looming international threat, virtually no one protested the final bill. Opposition has melted in the face of last year's weapons tests by North Korea and Iran, and this month's disclosures that China may have stolen US nuclear technology.

President Clinton, who vetoed an earlier version of the bill in 1995, shifted in recent days to support the current measure. Democrats ultimately threw their support behind the plan, as well, depriving Republicans of the chance to use missile defense as a political issue during the 2000 elections.

After the votes, Clinton issued a statement, saying, ''We are committed to meeting the growing danger that outlaw nations will develop and deploy long-range missiles... against us.''

This story ran on page A03 of the Boston Globe on 03/19/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.