WASHINGTON -- With scant public debate, Congress all but decided yesterday to commit taxpayers this year to a $4 billion down payment for a ground-based "star wars" missile shield.
The compromise $291 billion defense bill approved by Senate and House negotiators yesterday also allows President Bush to divert $1 billion of the military budget for humanitarian aid to the Soviet Union.
The action on the bill also effectively halted the controversial B-2 bomber program, freezing production at the 15 planes already on order. And it removes a 1948 ban on women flying combat missions. Both houses of Congress are expected to approve the bill next week.
Under the bill, up to 100 missiles for the shield should be in place by 1996, probably at Grand Forks, N.D., with an additional half-dozen expected to be built at sites across the country. Relying on ground- and space-based sensors to sound the alarm, the weapons would be fired to destroy incoming missiles.
At a time when the threat of an attack from the Soviet Union has virtually evaporated, critics have questioned the need for such a costly investment. But proponents contend that the threat of a terrorist or accidental missile attack on the United States justifies the expense.
The first phase of the system could cost as much as $15 billion and require renegotiation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union.
Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, hailed the bipartisan approval of the missile shield as a "historic event."
But former military leaders questioned the value of such a system.
Both Harold Brown, defense secretary during Jimmy Carter's administration, and Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1978 to 1982, believe that any nation %J wanting to attack the United States would not use missiles.
"The weapons would more probably be delivered by low-flying light aircraft, by ships coming into harbor, or by being smuggled into the United States," Mr. Brown told a Senate committee last week.
"A ballistic missile defense of the United States should not be the first line of defense against such Third World threats," he added.