As the latest failure of the missile defense system shows [front page, Jan. 19], the backers of Star Wars-type programs are once again eating humble pie-in-the-sky. The chances of the missile interceptors working reliably are low, and even if they started to hit targets they could be fooled by decoy missiles and other tricks. We are spending more than $3 billion a year to stage tests the missiles cannot pass. The deployment of a missile system, whether or not it works, would run into tens of billions of dollars each year. Meanwhile, Congress under-funds U.N. and NATO peacekeeping operations. Peacekeeping in Kosovo will cost the United States about $3 billion each year, a good use of the money we now waste on missile defense gadgetry.

Making peace on the ground works, while spending billions to play games in outer space doesn't.

MICHAEL A. SHEA

Arlington

Despite the pronouncements of the secretary of defense, the failure of the missile defense system to hit its target, while a setback, is not the most critical problem with the system. The greater problem is that the system can never be tested under realistic conditions. Even an unsophisticated attacker would use multiple missiles and the electromagnetic pulse of a nearby nuclear explosion to disrupt this "thin" defense. Unless the United States is willing to abrogate the ABM Treaty and resume atmospheric nuclear testing, we can never learn whether the system actually would defend us.

In constructing an adequate defense against an attack by a rogue state using nuclear or biological weapons, other avenues--by air, land and sea--must be covered. Nuclear devices (or pathogens) can be carried in a suitcase, which makes a missile defense shield of questionable effectiveness. Although the costs of the missile defense system undoubtedly will escalate beyond the projected $12.7 billion (through 2005), the costs of blocking these other approaches, such as providing an effective continental air defense system, could approach the cost of Social Security.

Finally, the deployment of the Safeguard ABM system in the 1970s was nearly defeated, not by its cost, but by the outcry of those citizens whose localities were to host the ABM missile sites. Fortunately, Safeguard, although it was barely able to squeak through Congress, led to the ABM Treaty with the Soviet Union.

Will the citizens of the yet-to-be-designated northern-tier state have a change of heart once they are faced with deployment of ABM missiles in their backyard, and with the high priority target this makes them?

ROBERT C. NICHOLAS III

Washington