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SENATE ERRS ON MISSILE VOTE

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Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, some members of Congress are still trying to fight the Cold War - or some kind of nuclear war.

They continue to envision the need for a heavily armed United States bristling with anti-missile weaponry. But where is the looming missile-armed enemy whose existence would justify the expense of tens of billions of dollars?On a narrow and incomprehensible 51-49 vote this past week, the Senate refused to delete the "Star Wars" program from a 1996 defense spending bill, authorizing $3.7 billion in what could ultimately be a $29 billion project that undoubtedly would end up costing far more.

At a time when Congress is scrambling to find ways to slash the federal budget deficit, the launching of an expensive new military machine - and one of doubtful value at that - hardly seems justified.

In addition to the cost, the anti-missile program would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty put together in the 1970s with the Soviet Union. That treaty essentially outlaws missile defense systems.

By pushing ahead with a new anti-missile, all other existing arms control agreements between the United States and Russia could be jeopardized, including the agreed-upon elimination of thousands of nuclear warheads. What possible gain in U.S. security could emerge from such a trade-off?

Unilateral U.S. action could also feed the paranoia and distrust of the Russian military, which so far has been a benevolent bystander in efforts to democratize Russia. But if the military starts throwing its support to hard-line conservatives in Moscow, what might happen to the drive toward Russian democracy?

If the Cold War is indeed over - a development acknowledged by at least one supporter of the anti-missile system - against whom would America be defending itself? Iraq? Libya? Or some other regional tyrant? None of them possesses intercontinental missiles.

Aside from these fundamental concerns, the whole missile defense concept is questionable. The idea did not have great credibility even at the height of the Cold War.

For example, there are no guarantees that incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles could be intercepted at all. This is not the same thing as trying to shoot down a few short-range Iraqi Scud missiles. And any defense system would be limited to a few sites, scattered and checkered at best.

Investing in some high-tech missile shield of doubtful value is not only expensive, it is a very poor alternative to working closely with the Russians in getting rid of existing missiles and nuclear warheads. The Senate has made a major mistake on this one.