By GEORGE GEDDA, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - How's this for a scary scenario: Iran takes some missiles supplied by North Korea (news - web sites) and places them, along with a mobile launcher, aboard an ordinary merchant ship.
The ship sails to within 100 miles of the U.S. coast. The crew, made up of militants from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, fires away, bringing ``a large section of the U.S. population under attack with zero
warning, and not much opportunity to be detected.''
Could this actually happen? William Schneider, a former top State Department
official, outlined that scenario a while back in making the case for the establishment of a national missile defense.
The concept is supported by President-elect George W. Bush (news - web sites) and a large segment of the security establishment, but faces an impressive array of critics who believe there are better ways of neutralizing the missile threat.
That threat was spelled out in a July 1998 report prepared by a congressionally
mandated commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's choice to be secretary of defense.
The nine commissioners unanimously concluded that ``concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces and its friends and allies.
``These newer, developing threats in North Korea, Iran and Iraq are in addition to those posed by the existing ballistic missile arsenals of Russia and China, nations with which we are not now in conflict but which remain in uncertain transitions.''
Like Schneider, the commission suggests Iran is a country of particular concern. The report said that at some point, Iran could develop the capability for a missile in the 10,000-kilometer range, and hold the U.S. at risk in an arc extending northeast of a line from Philadelphia to St. Paul, MN.
President Clinton (news - web sites) last summer deferred a decision on deployment to his successor after toying with the idea of a limited missile defense by deploying missile-tracking radar in Alaska.
Bush said last week in announcing his appointment of Rumsfeld that ``to defend our forces and allies and our own country from the threat of missile attack or accidental launch, we must develop a missile defense system.''
As the debate on a missile defense approaches, many opponents will take their cues from Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, a leading expert on the issue.
``Is there a future for national missile defense?'' he asks. ``I remain a skeptic but I would not reject the idea for all time.''
Opposition to a national missile defense, or NMD, is strong - and it's not just the $60 billion estimated price tag that frightens critics.
Among the opponents are the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (news - web sites), which said in a joint study last April that there are numerous ways an attacking nation or group could circumvent a missile defense.
The report found that attackers using nuclear weapons could defeat a missile defense system by deploying their warheads inside special balloons and releasing many empty balloons along with them, presenting the defense with an unwinnable shell-game. Or, the study said, a nuclear warhead could be covered by a shroud cooled to very low temperatures, preventing the heat-seeking interceptor from detecting and homing on the target.
There are other drawbacks that critics point to. Many experts believe China and Russia would seek ways to overwhelm a U.S. NMD by upgrading their arsenals, lest they become irrelevant.
NMD deployment could cause strains in the Atlantic Alliance. Camille Grand, of the Institut d'Etudes Politques in Paris, writes that there is genuine concern in Europe that ``the country that invented arms control and nonproliferation is showing a mounting distrust, if not outright contempt, for bilateral and multilateral regimes and treaties. ... The determined pursuit of NMD is another signal of growing U.S. preference for unilateral responses to global issues.''
EDITOR'S NOTE - George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.