President Clinton's decision on whether to proceed with the project was to be based, in part, on the results of three tests of the system, the third of which is expected to be held next month. After the first of these tests failed, the Pentagon lowered the bar by deploying simpler, and fewer, decoys in the second, which succeeded. Although Pentagon officials said they were adopting a walk-before-you-run approach to developing the system, critics point out that future tests outlined in the document actually get easier. "They're setting these tests in ways that increase the chances of success," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "The Pentagon can certainly claim expert backing for the claim that their earlier tests may have been too complex, but their problem arises in the fact that they claim that even in these complex tests, the system proved capable of distinguishing between warhead and decoys. If that is the case, then they face a question about why the subsequent tests should be made easier."
Debates over the political and military wisdom of missile defense become somewhat academic if the system simply doesn't work, as a number of critics and observers believe. And the impression that its technological viability remains unproven could help President Clinton out of a tight spot. Although he's backed the politically popular National Missile Defense plan, he's been unable to coax the Russians into renegotiating the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which forbids its deployment, leaving Washington facing the choice of backing off from the system or tearing up a key arms control agreement. When he first endorsed National Missile Defense in principle, President Clinton punted that issue three years forward pending the outcome of tests. And even though his self-imposed deadline may now be upon him, gaping holes in the testing program may create just the political cover he needs to leave the dilemma to his successor.