In the process of trying to devise a coherent missile defense strategy, House conferees had much the better case than their Senate negotiating partners in shaping the new $291 billion Pentagon budget. Spurred by the perceived (though debatable) success of Patriot missiles in shooting down Iraqi Scuds, conferees have agreed to accelerate development of so-called "theater" missile defenses to deal with Saddam-style threats in the future.
From there, however, the arcane debate over advanced weaponry ends in scrambled distinctions between systems that can be deployed where Third World conflict occurs and systems to defend U.S. territory against various kinds of strategic or intercontinental attack: a massive Soviet first strike, an unauthorized or accidental launch from a former Soviet republic, an attack from one of the lesser nuclear powers of the future or a terrorist raid from any number of conceivable sources.
The Bush administration, in downgrading President Reagan's visionary belief in a "Star Wars" defense system against an all-out attack, is pushing a plan to defend the United States against limited strategic strikes. To achieve this goal, it is attempting to ride piggyback on congressional enthusiasm for what might be called "Super Patriots" to take out "Super Scuds" that soon will be available to all too many countries.
The problem is the deliberate ambiguity that has crept into the whole exercise. There is a big difference between theater missile defense of the type seen in the Persian Gulf war and much more elaborate systems designed to protect U.S. territory.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, relieved that the "Star Wars" plan is being downsized after spending $23.9 billion, signed on to a concept that will feature ground-based interceptors guided by space-based sensors to destroy incoming missiles. So far so good. But it also won approval for $415 million for space-based interceptors, dubbed "Brilliant Pebbles," perhaps by accepting massive cuts in the B-2 Stealth bomber program.
The House Armed Services balked at both BP and B-2 and, in our view, was right to do so.
"Brilliant Pebbles" -- potentially an $11 billion system -- commits the nation to an enormously expensive defense against undefined threats, undercuts the 1972 ABM Treaty and opens a new phase in the arms race. Conferees appear to have agreed, nonetheless, on a program large enough to permit not only research but deployment of this weapons system. We hope the final bill cleared through Congress will pare that down a bit and avoid setting deployment deadlines. If not this year, then soon after that, the Pentagon and Congress will have to clarify a lot of imponderables about the wisdom, the parameters, the mission and the necessity for missile defense.