The scam that won't die

The National Missile Defense—the newest name for Star Wars, "the Peace shield," the "nuclear umbrella," or "Brilliant Pebbles," the fanciful idea of shooting incoming nuclear missiles out of the sky—is now 17 years old; Ronald Reagan's high-profile launch of the idea was in 1983. The idea of using missile-based systems to defend the US against incoming missiles is over 40 years old, with an estimated price tag of over $125 billion in those years. After the latest test failure last week of Boeing's exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) technology, national defense has exactly zero to actually show for that $125 billion.

Think about that for a moment. Think of the staggering amount of technological change that has swept the world in the last 17 years. When Reagan took office, microwave ovens were just coming into common household use. More people still listened to AM than FM radio stations. Not only was there no known treatment for AIDS, but the term "AIDS" did not yet exist for the dimly known "gay cancer." At the launch of "Star Wars," personal computers hardly existed—let alone laptops, let alone e-mail, let alone chat rooms, let alone the World Wide Web or the Internet or anything dot-com.

A lot has changed in 20 years. But we are no closer now than we were then to the impossible dream that is Star Wars. And the sum of money that has been shoveled out to military contractors—the true purpose of Star Wars—is a scandal so large that it may well represent the largest corporate welfare scheme in the history of the world. While Star Wars is thought of as a Republican delusion, it's been solidly bipartisan. It's enjoyed a healthy renaissance under Bill Clinton, who routinely adds money to his budgets for it—most recently, another $2.2 billion for 80 extra Boeing EKV interceptors at a silo in Alaska. Clinton will decide in July whether to proceed with a five-year deployment plan. By then, only three of 19 scheduled tests of the feasibility of the system will have been held—one last October that "succeeded" (though Pentagon critics contend the results were rigged), last week's failure at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and another in the spring. According to an article by William Hartung in the fall 1998 World Policy Journal, the interceptor has failed seven of nine tests this decade.

Fret not, Boeing stockholders. In a presidential election year, Clinton's decision is a virtual given. Star Wars will muddle on. Luke Warren, a spokesperson for the Council for a Livable World, a DC research firm that tracks such military matters, fully expects some sort of compromise that will keep this Frankenstein alive despite the lack of positive results: a decision that will give the green light to deployment but won't start actual construction until the technology is "fixed." Warren charges that Democrats keep voting for the National Missile Defense so as to avoid being labeled soft on defense, and to take that issue "out of the Republican arsenal in 2000 . . . I think that will be Clinton's main criterion [in July]."

An unending gravy train

It takes some $4-$5 billion a year to keep NMD going. That's an extraordinarily expensive program to provide political cover for the Democratic Party. But there's more, of course. The bipartisan program is also being driven by the powerful military lobby.

And Warren ticks off the reasons why NMD is a bad idea: "Even if all three NMD tests pass before the July decision whether to deploy, it's still premature; we certainly don't know enough about the technological hurdles to feel confident in the system." The very basis of Star Wars, of course, is that it requires 100 percent effectiveness in order to work. If one gets through, well, never mind.

Warren continues: "It's an estimated up to $100 billion for a system that works marginally, that's not cost-effective. There are many other diplomatic and political solutions we can engage in that hardly cost anything, would save the ABM treaty with Russia, keep China happy, and keep our NATO allies happy." The antimissile system, originally designed to keep the Soviet Union at bay, is now reduced to keeping North Korea—the only potential military adversary that might develop missile capacity in 10-20 years—from attacking. Of course, any country that could develop a long-range missile could also develop decoys of the type stumping our interceptor. Meanwhile, for $125 billion, we could probably buy the decrepit North Korea.

It doesn't work and probably never will. It costs a bucket-load. It demolishes existing and prospective arms control treaties. It pisses off allies and potential adversaries alike. And even as deterrence it's not effective unless the Pentagon can prove the technology is completely reliable. All in all, it's laughable.

For lo these two decades of its existence, the government, with a big assist from mainstream media, has encouraged the public to think of Star Wars all wrong. Star Wars, we're told, is a defense program, and the controversy media has sold us is whether or not the program is technologically feasible. That's a red herring. The program—to divert billions of taxpayer dollars to military contractors in an unending gravy train, to sell one or another political party as "tough on defense"—has been depressingly feasible, on a scale that makes the savings and loan scandal seem like child's play.

So long as the military can claim "progress" toward that elusive (because it's impossible) goal of the "peace shield" Ronald Reagan envisioned in the earlier days of his brain damage, the gravy train shows no signs of slowing. The staggering sums of money the world's wealthiest country could deploy toward feeding, housing, healing, and educating its citizens will keep going instead to the stockholders of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and their friends. And with nary a whimper from the fleeced taxpaying public.

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