Ballistic missiles represent the only viable means at Saddam Hussein's disposal to inflict punishment upon the U.S.-led coalition: the Iraqi air force has been swept from the sky; sabotage and terrorism in the Gulf region face a slim chance of success under conditions of heightened wartime security.

Suppression of the Iraqi missile force has proven to be a singularly difficult task. As Saddam Hussein predicted in a speech in Baghdad in April 1990, "Our missiles are mobile. Today you see them in Baghdad, tomorrow in Mosul, and the next day you launch them from Basra. . . . We can launch missiles every hour and from different places. For each base they hit or destroy on the ground we will build another one. . . . We know the facts of war. "

The allied air forces, the most powerful air legion ever assembled, have been unable to destroy the Iraqi missile launchers in more than a week of sorties that have accorded the Scuds top priority. The Scud hunt has diverted valuable air assets from more crucial missions such as suppressing Iraqi air defenses and bombing the Republican Guard. Regardless of the limited military effectiveness of the Iraqi missiles, the political need to address the threat places a continuous demand on U.S. forces.

By contrast, the success of U.S. missile defenses has been remarkable. U.S. Patriot anti-tactical ballistic missiles to date have been highly successful in intercepting incoming Scuds in their first combat test. U.S. missile defenses have served a dual role: militarily, they have protected U.S. forces and allies from attack by Iraqi missiles. Politically, they have provided reassurance to our partners in the face of Iraqi attempts at coercion.

The defeat of Saddam Hussein will not mark the end of the ballistic missile threat to the United States and its allies. Third World states will continue to develop and deploy ballistic missiles with increasing range, accuracy and lethality. The director of Central Intelligence, William Webster, has testified that by the year 2000, 15 states in the developing world will possess ballistic missiles, and six of them will have intermediate-range ballistic missiles. According to Rear Adm. Thomas Brooks, director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, 10 of the states developing a ballistic missile capability possess or are developing chemical warfare capabilities. Further, Webster has testified that by the end of the decade, eight of the countries seeking ballistic missiles may have nuclear weapons.

We are entering a new era, one in which U.S. forces, friends and eventually the United States itself will be threatened by third-party ballistic missiles. Indeed, Libya's Col. Gadhafi has already stated that if he had possessed long-range nuclear ballistic missiles during the 1986 U.S. air strike on Tripoli, he would have retaliated by attacking New York City. While the chances of such an event occurring in the near future are low, Iraq's 1989 test of the 2,000-km Tammuz-1 IRBM shows that extremist states are gaining long-range strike capabilities.

The Patriot has acquitted itself extremely well in the present conflict. However, the war has also shown the limitations of the Patriot. A point-defense system, it is unable to protect wide areas of territory. Hence several Scuds have escaped interception, one landing on an apartment building in Tel Aviv. What will be needed is a system to provide global protection against limited strikes, such as that currently proposed by the Department of Defense.

Such a layered ground- and space-based system will allow multiple opportunities to engage incoming missiles, reducing chances of failure. Key to such a system will be ground-based theater missile defenses such as the Patriot, the U.S.-Israeli Arrow interceptor or the U.S. Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system. Space-based sensors being developed as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative will be crucial to early warning of missile attacks, detecting launches and assessing attacks. As the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait attests, future crises may develop overnight. Space-based interceptors such as Brilliant Pebbles are capable of providing global presence and round-the-clock ability to intercept long-range ballistic missiles. Such space-based weapons will become increasingly important as Third World states acquire missiles of greater range.

Critics of U.S. ballistic missile defense programs have argued that the ballistic missile is not a viable military instrument for states in the developing world and that U.S. ballistic missile defense cannot be effective. The record of the war in the Persian Gulf refutes these assertions. Ballistic missile defense offers a means of decreasing ballistic missile threats to the United States and its friends and allies. Militarily, defenses allow the United States to protect its forces and allies abroad from missile attack. Further, they will help free U.S. air and missile forces from the difficult task of attempting to destroy enemy missile forces to pursue more fruitful missions.

Politically, the deployment of such defenses can serve to cement alliance relationships and reassure friends and allies threatened by hostile ballistic missiles. What is more, such defenses can enhance stability, mitigating the perceived need of states under threat to preempt an opponents capabilities and escalate a crises or conflict.

The writer is an analyst with a national security consulting firm.