'SDI-Lite': Old Wine in New Skins

President Ronald Reagan's concept of a space shield that would render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete was always a technological will-o'-the-wisp in the eyes of most credible scientists. But that hasn't made the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," go away; the program has quietly received multibillion dollar budgets each year, despite continued congressional and public skepticism about its feasibility.

In late January the Bush administration -- with the hopes of giving the Star Wars program a renewed lease on life -- announced a new goal for the effort. In a clear attempt to cash in on the public perception of the success of the Patriot missiles in the Gulf war, the government proclaimed that the new Star Wars objective is to develop a system capable of protecting the United States and its military forces against a "limited" attack of fewer than 100 missiles.

For some expert observers, however, the "new" Star Wars is just old wine in new skins. Peter Clausen, director of research for the Union of Concerned Scientists, maintains that despite its repackaging, the limited-objective system is "basically a down-sized version of the misplaced approach that SDI has been pursuing for years."

And despite the shrunken goal, the cost has risen dramatically. Bush is seeking a 65 percent increase in next year's SDI budget to $5.2 billion. Why the sudden confidence that Congress will refund this lemon-in-the-sky program, especially in light of the shrinking budget pie? The answer is another legacy of the Gulf war.

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