WASHINGTON — Forget “Star Wars,” the futuristic, space-based missile-defense system envisioned by President Ronald Reagan in a speech 17 years ago this week.

Then, the very idea of constructing a high-tech — and highly expensive — shield against incoming Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles plunged military strategists and politicians into a divisive debate over its feasibility.

Today, missile defense — albeit on a smaller scale — is a no-brainer, an idea deeply entrenched in the Defense Department and championed by the Democratic Congress and White House.

“I would never have thought between last year and now that we’d be sitting here with a program that has broad global support, broad national support, bipartisan support on the Hill,” Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Washington conference of missile defense contractors this week.

Few critics still ask if the U.S. should press forward with missile defense, Cartwright said.

“Now we’re really in a mode that’s ‘How fast can you produce?’ ” he said.

As the Cold War-era threat of superpowers lobbing nuclear missiles through space has receded, shorter-range dangers have increased. Missile defense is now the Pentagon’s answer to new problems: short- and medium-range missiles potentially launched from Iran, which could threaten continental Europe and Israel, and missiles possessed by North Korea, which Cartwright last year said could reach Hawaii and Alaska as early as 2012.

Such threats have impelled the Pentagon to focus on building regional defenses against missiles that could be launched against America’s allies, who are now more eager to field the defensive tools.

“These developments have helped underwrite a historic shift away from the divisive debates of the 1980s,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn. “Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle understand the importance — and the practicality — of missile defense. Today, we have a strong bipartisan consensus that supports missile defense and its role in our national security strategy.”

In September, President Barack Obama announced a new missile defense strategy for Eastern Europe, ditching the Bush administration’s previous plan to place ground-based interceptor missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. The new plan will use the Navy’s shipboard Aegis system, creating what the Pentagon now believes is a smarter defense against the type of medium-range missiles possessed by Iran.

Last June, just days after North Korea conducted an underground test nuclear explosion, Defense Secretary Robert Gates climbed into the ground-based interceptor silos at Fort Greely, Alaska.

“In the past, there have been a number of skeptics of missile defense on Capitol Hill,” Gates said at the time. “I haven’t heard a lot from those folks lately.”

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