Courtesy Reuters

Star Wars Strikes Back


Star Wars the movie may have enjoyed a comeback this year. But inside the defense community, Star Wars never left us. Unfortunately, neither have the polemics surrounding it; missile defense remains as controversial as ever. That may not have mattered much in the past, when missile-defense technology was too immature to make deployment practical. But there could soon be real consequences if the debate remains mired in ideology.

To understand the arguments and the stakes involved, a few definitions are essential. Ballistic missile defenses fall into two main categories: theater and national, designed to intercept short-range and long-range missiles, respectively. The United States now deploys a version of theater missile defense (TMD) -- the Patriot -- but does not yet operate more advanced TMD systems or a national missile defense (NMD) of any kind.

TMD and NMD use similar technologies: satellite-based infrared sensors that detect and track missile launches, radar that follows incoming threats and guides interceptors to them, and the interceptor missiles themselves. Eventually both may also include airborne and space-based lasers -- although such devices remain early in the laboratory stage today (a point recently reaffirmed by the Pentagon's chief scientist and its director of testing). But the similarities between TMD and NMD end there. For while TMD enjoys wide support in the American policy debate, NMD (or strategic defense) remains hotly contentious.

The popularity of TMD stems from its role in the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam Hussein fired about 90 Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia during the war -- killing 28 U.S. soldiers in their barracks near Dhahran and terrifying Israeli civilians. The early variant of the Patriot system deployed against him (designed more to shoot down airplanes than missiles) did not actually stop many Scuds. But it helped avert an Israeli retaliatory strike that might have fractured the U.S.-led coalition. The Patriot has been improved since the Gulf War, and is soon to be upgraded further. Other TMD

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