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The Washington Inquirer, Mar. 17, 1998

by Albert L. Weeks

A recent poll showed that a large percentage of Americans do not realize that the United States is totally vulnerable to a variety of attacks from space. Besides intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), whether launched accidentally or intentionally, our country is likewise defenceless against an asteroid headed in Earth's direction.

The latter danger by no means is remote. The Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA, reported March 11 that such an outer-space object, tagged Asteroid 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 asteroid would 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 object that struck the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago and is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs worldwide.

What can be done to be ready for both attack threats--that of ICBMs as 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 was largely hooted down in the Congress and the media, hence the epithet "star wars." A number of politicians and politically-motivated scientists disliked the idea not only because they thought the program would be too expensive and was technologically infeasible, 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 USSR and 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 deploy). Research and development likewise were strictly limited. The ABM Treaty was based on the assumption that if both sides--Russian and American --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 Mutual Assured 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 missile launches that could threaten the U.S. The Administration has agreed with Moscow's insistence. Yet the Russians continue to modernize their own Moscow ABM. One day they might even acquire the means to mount a nationwide ABM for themselves, as the Soviets had actually 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 asteroid.

Meanwhile, downsized U.S. funding under the present Administration in Washington for a merely ground-based "SDI" is regarded as inadequate by proponents of fullfledged 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 Democrat senators and congressmen, are concerned that the U.S. is perilously neglecting its security interests 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 anti-asteroid shield in a memorable article in "Parade" magazine. Testing of ABM components continues under the present restrictions. But the experiments presently are based on ground-based components: missiles shooting at missiles as radar-tracked from the ground. Some insist, optimally, that the U.S. should be testing space-borne elements resembling "battle stations" that could detect as well as destroy incoming objects.

Some competent scientists and former defense secretaries argue that such a U.S. program 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.

Tel.: 941-925-1088
E-Mail: aweeks1@compuserve.com
Postal: Albert L. Weeks
4884 Kestral Park Circle
Sarasota, FL 34231

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