Star Wars: Episode
Latest Missile Defense Fantasy
By Jeffrey St. Clair
wrong to say that Star Wars is back. The hare - brained scheme hatched
on the fly by Ronald Reagan in 1983 has never gone away. Quietly but relentlessly
a Star Wars industry, under the rubric of Ballistic Missile Defense, has
The corporate press, which rightly heckled the plan in its early days,
soon got bored with the story and left it for dead. Then in 1992, the
missile shield's putative critics took over the White House and became
its new masters. In the intervening years, billions of dollars poured
into the Pentagon's Space and Missile Defense Command Center in Huntsville,
Alabama, to production plants spread across key congressional districts,
and into the plump accounts of a portfolio of defense contractors and
high - tech firms.
In a 1995 review of the program in DefenseIssues, an internal Pentagon
newsletter, Lt. Gen. Malcolm O'Neill, then head of the Ballistic Missile
Defense Organization, rhapsodized about a "synergized" network of high
- powered, space - based lasers, satellites, radar and sea - , air - and
ground - launched "exoatmospheric kill vehicles" that would save U.S.
cities from "theater - class ballistic missiles, advanced cruise missiles
and other air - breathing threats as well." Feel safer?
Now the Pentagon is seeking approval to put part of its system into operation.
The first phase is a ground - based system of 100 Interceptor missiles
and a ring of new radar stations, both to be based in the Alaskan tundra.
Clinton has said he will make a final decision on the system this summer.
All indications are that he will give it the green light.
Of course, there are problems. Namely, with the collapse of the Soviet
Union and corporate America's coddling of China, why in the world would
the United States need to deploy such a system? Such questions prompt
the most absurd frenzy of threat - inflation since the notion that the
Marxist government of Grenada posed a grave danger to the Western Hemisphere.
A coven of atomic warriors has been rolled out to fulminate about "rogue
nations" and "global terrorists" who threaten what the Pentagon brass
calls the "early post - Cold War paradigm." Of course, if Osama Bin Laden
ever decides to strike back at his former friends in the U.S. government,
his payload is much more likely to be delivered via FedEx in a Louis Vuitton
suitcase than a rocket launched from his camp in the Hindu Kush.
stumbling block is the 1972 Anti - Ballistic Missile Treaty that flatly
prohibits such a system, which the architects of the ABM treaty rightly
saw as a destabilizing force that would spur proliferation and stockpiling
of weapons. But the Clinton - Gore administration views the ABM treaty
as outmoded and, in a now customary display of hubris, on April 25, U.S.
Ambassador James Collins delivered a draft copy of proposed changes to
Moscow. The tenor of the U.S. rewrite didn't sit well with Russian Foreign
Minister Igor Ivanov, who warned it could prove a "fatal mistake." "Everyone
should be aware that the collapse of the ABM treaty would have a destructive
domino effect for the existing system of disarmament agreements," he said.
"We would be back in an era of suspicion and confrontation."
New Russian President Vladimir Putin has already upped the nuclear ante
by authorizing changes in Russia's military doctrine that would allow
it to launch a "first strike" nuclear attack. Anti - nuclear activist
Daniel Ellsberg, the former government researcher who leaked the Pentagon
Papers, says that may have been the bizarre intention of the Pentagon
all along. "In order to advance a domestic political agenda," he says,
"the United States is encouraging the Russians to remain on and advance
a launch - on - warning system."
It's the old game of escalating threats. The cheerleaders for the new
Star Wars system now realize that the "rogue state" threat isn't credible.
For one thing, North Korea, nearly crippled by drought and economic isolation,
seems ready to consider a rapprochement with the South. Iran, the Pentagon's
other favorite devil, doesn't have missiles that could reach the United
States. And Iraq, still smoldering from years of unceasing U.S. air strikes,
is barely able to maintain its water supply system, never mind construct
a fleet of transcontinental ballistic missiles. Even that normally reliable
intermediary for U.S. strategic interests, U.N. Secretary - General Kofi
Annan, has publicly voiced his doubts about the new Star Wars scheme,
saying it could reignite a global arms race.
Even some unrepentant cold warriors chafed at this chilling dialogue.
North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who rules the Foreign Relations Committee,
vowed that any changes to the ABM Treaty agreed to by Russia would be
"dead on arrival." The Republicans have a political motive to drag their
feet. They don't want to give Al Gore a "hawkish" victory on the eve of
the election or allow Clinton to add some more military luster to his
legacy. "So, Mr. Clinton is in search of a legacy," Helms blustered. "La
- de - da - he already has one. The Russian government should not be under
any illusion whatsoever that any commitments made by this lame - duck
administration will be binding on the next administration."
it off, the system doesn't work. There have been two high - profile tests
of the Interceptor missile to date. One was an unmitigated failure. The
other was initially touted as "a direct kill," but it later emerged that
the Pentagon had fixed the test. The next firing is slated for June 26.
A few months ago, Defense Secretary William Cohen pointed to this date
as a make - it - or - break - it final exam for the program. But now top
Pentagon officials are beginning to show signs of test anxiety. "It will
depend on what caused the failure," hedges Pentagon spokesman Mike Biddle.
"A mechanical failure isn't necessarily terminal."
Even the program's biggest boosters now concede that the missile shield
would be all but useless against a nuclear strike launched by Russia,
China or, one supposes, France, should Parisians ever seek to retaliate
for the crimes of EuroDisney. A newly declassified State Department document,
obtained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, shows that a minimum
of four U.S. Interceptors would be needed to "kill" one incoming missile.
This means that the entire system would be exhausted trying to down 20
The Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization projects the cost
of the system at $36 billion, a typically modest appraisal. The Congressional
Budget Office has come up with a slightly more robust number of $60 billion
- a figure the government auditors admit is little more than a rough guess,
since the administration hasn't yet put forward details on the next two
phases of the plan. But even that number was enough to stagger some of
the plan's most ardent backers. "That's out of sync with anything I've
seen," said Rep. Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the
House Armed Services Committee's panel on military research and development.
"But you can't put a price tag on protecting American cities."
Despite the dearth of media coverage, the public is beginning to sour
on the plan. According to a recent ABC News poll, public support for the
Clinton/Gore version of national missile defense is sliding; 44 percent
of Americans support the plan, down from 55 percent in 1985. So what's
driving the bipartisan push for an increasingly unpopular new missile
defense system that is extravagant, inept, unnecessary and destabilizing?
You don't have to dig very deep to find an answer: Raytheon, TRW, Lockheed
Martin and Boeing. Each of these firms has secured a lucrative sector
of the Star Wars program.
Of course, the companies do have to make some political offerings. And
they haven't been miserly. Together these four companies have flushed
more than $2.6 million to the two political parties in soft money alone
since 1996. On top of that, the defense giants' PACs have sluiced $3.7
million to federal candidates in the past three years, making the Star
Wars coalition one of the prime sponsors of our political system. What
money can't buy, direct persuasion often can. These four companies spent
more than $18 million lobbying Congress in 1998, sending out a legion
of former senators, congressmen and retired Pentagon chieftains as their
hired guns on the Hill.
This all gives a bracing new meaning to getting more bang for the buck.
Jeffrey St. Clair is
a contributing editor of In These Times.
In These Times ©
Vol. 24, No. 14