The Strategic Defense Organization has spent $24 billion in research in the Utopian pursuit of a perfect defense. So far, it has produced nothing to defend anybody against anything.

If our anti-missile efforts had not been turned into a nearly dead-end program and had focused on workability, our troops in the gulf and Israel might have missile defenses far better than the Patriot.Fortunately, the "Star Wars" concept has been given a strong new lease on life - by President Bush's endorsement in his State of the Union message, by the successful test of an experimental Eris missile against a dummy warhead in the Pacific and by the use of Patriots against Iraqi Scuds in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

There is ample technology to build missile defenses for all levels of potential conflict. But our defense establishment has staked America's safety on the doctrine of mutual, offense-only deterrence, codified in the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

The treaty forbids a nationwide missile defense - though not defenses against tactical missiles such as the Scud - and has artificially crippled progress in anti-missile technology. The Patriot almost suffered this fate.

In the 1970s, policymakers realized the Patriot, though designed to shoot down aircraft, could possess an anti-missile capability. Yet, they were so eager to avoid an ABM-treaty controversy that they deliberately reduced the Patriot's ability to intercept ballistic missiles.

Fortunately, farsighted people in the defense community and industry saw the Patriot's anti-missile value and pressed Congress to finance an upgrading of the system. The Patriot thus acquired its anti-missile capability, though it stopped short of serving as a genuine ABM system.

Existing technologies could by now have given us "Super Patriots," such as Eris, Thaad and the Israeli Arrow. These are ground-based "smart" interceptors with on-board computers and sensors that can track and attack incoming warheads, destroying them in low earth space or the upper atmosphere.

We could be close to a "brilliant pebbles" space defense, the progeny of "smart rocks" technology. These swarms of orbiting miniature rockets can intercept strategic missiles in their trajectories and pulverize them.

A decade ago the Congress voted to build a space-based anti-missile laser, a prototype of which could have been in orbit by 1987. A wholehearted commitment to real defense can produce both ground-based and space-based lasers: directed energy weapons that destroy attacking missiles at the speed of light.

Missile technology and weapons of mass destruction are proliferating around the world. Moammar Gadhafi of Libya said if he had possessed a missile capable of reaching the United States during our air raid on Tripoli in 1986 he would have fired it at New York. Future aggressors may have the ability as well as the intent.

Thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads remain aimed at America. Who can guarantee that Mikhail Gorbachev or a successor will never launch an ICBM or blackmail us with the threat of nuclear attack?

If the ABM treaty stands in the way of protecting America we must renegotiate it, or withdraw altogether, as the treaty itself provides.