The PAC-3 anti-missile system that has been intercepting Iraqi missiles aimed at U.S. troops and other strategic sites in Kuwait never should have been deployed. It should have been branded unworkable, chalked up as a waste of $3 billion better spent on schools and health care, and forever mothballed under the heading "Another Crazy Missile-Defense Fantasy."
Such would have been the outcome if the logic of missile-defense critics had applied. After a superb record in development, PAC-3 suffered various glitches in the Army's operational tests of the system. One former Clinton administration official predicted that PAC-3 would only be 25 percent effective. It was deployed anyway, on the theory that some defense against incoming Iraqi missiles, even if imperfect, is better than none.
Its success so far should shatter one of the principal arguments of critics of President Bush's missile-defense plans -- that missile defense is, a priori, technologically impossible.
"It's, on its face, insane," the influential left-wing writer Christopher Hitchens has said of missile defense. "You can't. Everybody knows you can't. It's just a crazed boondoggle." Democratic honcho Paul Begala was only a little more restrained a few weeks ago: "At some point we have to say it didn't work. Microwave ovens do work; 'Star Wars' doesn't work."
There now can be no doubt that the basic "kinetic kill" technology behind the idea of missile defense -- obliterating an incoming missile by slamming an interceptor into it -- is feasible, and not just in tests, but in combat conditions. Just as a microwave heats popcorn, PAC-3 knocks down missiles.
The national missile defense slated for deployment by Bush in the United States against potential intercontinental ballistic missile launches will, of course, have to be much more sophisticated than the system in the Gulf. An ICBM is faster than one of Saddam's short-range missiles, travels at a higher altitude and might be accompanied by decoys.
The difference, however, between national missile defense and so-called theater missile defense (what is happening in Kuwait) is one of degree rather than principle. The experience in the Gulf during the past 12 years demonstrates how technology can improve, steadily moving a weapons system from fantasy to reality.
PAC-2 anti-missile interceptors were initially considered one of the heroes of the first Gulf War. They were thought to have regularly defeated Iraqi Scuds, but later analysis showed that the cobbled-together SCUDs had simply disintegrated themselves. The failure, by the logic of critics, should have led to the system's junking as a President Reagan-inspired boondoggle.
Instead, the PAC-2, designed to destroy a warhead by blowing up near it, was refined, and a new version, the PAC-3, was developed that would destroy a warhead by smashing into it, the same "kinetic kill" technology planned for national missile defense.
In recent days, both the PAC-2 and PAC-3 have intercepted Iraqi missiles, supported by a complicated surveillance network of radars and sensors that is a miniversion of what will be necessary for a national system (and that, given the erroneous shoot-down of a British jet, might still need refining).
While testing is still ongoing on national missile defense, Bush has announced his decision to deploy the first ICBM interceptors in the United States by September 2004. The system won't be perfect, but it will provide some defense against, say, a North Korean missile launch.
Four out of the past five tests of the anti-ICBM system have been successes, and the one recent failure had to do, like those PAC-3 testing snafus, with factors extraneous to the basic technology. Bush's eminently practical attitude is to deploy what we have, while continuing work to improve it.
But Democratic Sen. Carl Levin has fumed, "President Bush's decision to deploy a limited national missile defense system starting in 2004 before it has been tested and shown to work violates common sense." For Levin, as for other missile-defense critics, sense" would have meant letting those Iraqi missiles through in recent days. Their favored missile defense consists of a gas mask and a bunker.