Defense Secretary William Cohen said he'll be making his recommendation about whether to pursue a missile defense shield for the United States sometime in the middle of August.
The defense chief said there are four key questions to consider in his decision, questions laid out by President Clinton.
--What is the threat?
--What is the available technology to meet that threat?
--What is the cost?
--What are the implications for both allies and adversaries?
Alaskans have a particular stake in the decision because the state could be the site of part of the missile defense system. That's an about-face from the fear of a few years ago that Alaska and Hawaii would be left outside such a shield.
Also, some believe we might be a target of opportunity for an undefined terrorist faction or the desperate rulers of a totalitarian state -- North Korea is the usual example.
More than one critic has pointed out that it would make no sense for a nation like North Korea to fire a missile at the United States, no matter its degree of desperation, because such a strike would guarantee its own destruction.
Rational thought doesn't always rule the deliberations of nations, just as it doesn't always rule the actions of individuals. But does it make sense to spend billions on an uncertain defense against remote possibilities? How many rulers are willing, in the manner of Adolf Hitler, for example, to take their nation down in flames?
Terrorism is another matter, but if terrorists have a serious nuclear or chemical threat against the United States in mind, there's more than one way to inflict it. The smuggler's route may be of more use to them than a launching pad.
Mr. Cohen said the system the Pentagon has in mind is a far cry from President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative -- ''Star Wars.'' The defense secretary calls the missile shield a limited program to counter a limited threat. But the derisive nickname taken from the movie series has stuck.
And the most recent missile test, no matter how cheerful a spin the brass tried to put on it, was a flop. Luke Skywalker, meet Rube Goldberg.
Nobel laureates have rallied against the program. Cartoonists and comedians have rejoiced over rich material. The system that can't hit its targets becomes one.
But before dismissing the missile shield out of hand, it's wise to remember history. In the late 1950s, the struggling U.S. space program provided similar fodder for comics.
Milton Berle on the new talking Cape Canaveral doll: It counts backwards from 10 and falls down.
About 10 years later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Lessons of history serve both sides in this debate. How effective was the French Maginot Line, in its day a marvel of fortresses and engineering? In the end, the Maginot Line didn't matter. The armies of Nazi Germany went around it.
Still, an effective missile defense shield is an appealing idea, and not just to military planners and defense contractors. If it worked, it would be a wonderful counterpunch, one that could save lives and provide a powerful deterrent.
But so far the tests have been unconvincing. Even if those tests inspired more confidence, the nature of the threats remains debatable.
For the missile defense system to be worthy of the estimated $60 billion commitment, it has to meet high standards of both performance and need. The Pentagon has yet to meet those standards.
Continue the work. But keep a hold on that big check.
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