Brave new defense world

Thanks to G.W., the troubled missile defense system should boom at Boeing.

THERE MUST HAVE been high fives in Boeing's East Marginal Way boardroom, when President-elect George W. Bush nominated Donald Rumsfeld to return to the post of US secretary of defense.

Cold warriors connected at the hip politically and philosophically, Boeing's Old Hands and the 68-year-old Rumsfeld also see eye to eye on Star Wars II. That's shorthand for the missile defense system Boeing has so far unsuccessfully tested to fend off missile attacks from "rogue nations," a term fashioned a few years ago by a commission headed by Rumsfeld, an ex- Navy pilot who became Gerald Ford's defense secretary. His 1998 report gave momentum to the Boeing project and to critics who cried boondoggle.

Now with Bush and Rumsfeld (and Rumsfeld's onetime prot駩, Vice President- elect Dick Cheney) officially on board as true believers, Boeing can expect not only to expand its research and development of the troubled National Missile Defense (NMD) program, as it's formally known, but receive the all-important go-ahead to build it—making America safe from North Korea.

Boeing contributed about $800,000 of its $1.4 million in political contributions this election to Bush and the Republicans, and spent millions more lobbying the GOP Congress. The company is also a backer of the right-wing think tank, the Center for Security Policy, a fanatic missile-defense lobbying group that gave its 1998 Keeper of the Flame Award to Rumsfeld.

DESPITE ITS ENTHUSIASTIC and well-connected supporters, serious questions dog the NMD program. Ronald Reagan's Star Wars missile shield program of the 1980s envisioned space cannons blowing Soviet ballistic missiles from the sky. Star Wars II relies on the theory of a bullet stopping a bullet. Once US satellite radar detects an incoming missile, an interceptor missile from a future US launch farm (possibly in Alaska) would be fired to meet the enemy rocket and, at 10,000 mph, make it disappear.

So far, intercept test firings have failed twice (a third test was partially successful), and main contractor Boeing and its primary subcontractors Raytheon Co. and TRW Inc. can't conclusively say the theory or the hardware will work. MIT scientist Ted Postol, a lead critic, contends that enemy balloon decoys will render the system unworkable. US Representative Christopher Shays, R-Conn., worries that the hit-to-kill system is "missing more often than not," and after all, "This is rocket science."

Even US Representative Norm Dicks, D-Wash., usually one of Boeing's bigger fans, thinks NMD should be slowed down. "Given the failure of two of the three intercept tests that have been conducted and the remaining concerns of our allies regarding the impact on the [1972] Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty," he says in a statement, "I believe the president made the right decision" when Clinton opted last year not to approve full deployment.

The Pentagon last year trimmed $20 million from Boeing's expected program payments due to schedule delays and has ordered other cutbacks, though the Defense Department is willing to overlook NMD's flaws. As Pentagon missile point man Lt. Gen. Ron Kadish put it at a House committee hearing on the program, "There is no military system that I'm aware of that is perfect, either on the offense or the defense. So with that as a basic assumption, some of them, however, are pretty good."

Critics such as the Federation of American Scientists disagree. In a letter to President Clinton last year signed by 50 American Nobel laureates, including 1992 medicine co-Nobelists Edmond H. Fischer and Edwin G. Krebs of the University of Washington, the FAS said approval of full deployment "would be premature, wasteful, and dangerous," dismantling treaties and inducing a new arms race with Russia and China. Although North Korea has tested a three-stage Taepodong 1 missile that was capable of reaching Alaska, the FAS asked what would North Korea "gain by attacking the United States, except its own destruction?"

"I oppose this for several reasons," UW professor emeritus Fischer added last week from his Lopez Island home, "but generally, it's because you don't solve problems simply by throwing billions and billions at them."

WHETHER NMD FLIES or not, taxpayers are in for a costly ride. Congress has made missile defense a national policy and the Pentagon has made it the No. 1 defense program. The United States has spent at least $60 billion on the Star Wars concept since Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative was launched in 1983. Last month the Pentagon signed an NMD contract option worth up to $6 billion for Boeing, extending its two-year-old $1.6 billion contract until 2007. Under Bush—justifying new costs by claiming in catch-22 fashion that old costs would otherwise be wasted—US officials could eventually approve spending of $70 billion to as much as $240 billion to deploy the Boeing system within four to seven years.

That could buy a lot of teachers, antipoverty programs, and prescription medicines at a time when Bush is also planning to give Americans a $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax break. The prospect of spending billions on something many experts say won't pencil out has Boeing and its supporters pleased in anticipation.

Boeing's "industry team is committed to doing everything necessary" to bring the NMD into reality, says Anne Eisele, media director for Boeing Space and Communications.

The company would not comment directly on the brave new defense world portended by the Bush administration. Clinton has allowed the missile plan to continue, and Gore promised to do the same; however, Bush sees space weaponry as a major defense strategy (even if the bigger "rogue" threat to the United States lies in terrorist suitcase and car bombs).

Some Republicans have talked of creating a Space Force, a new branch of the military, as part of the missile defense plan. "We are on the cusp of being able to protect America from rogue states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq," adds Idaho's hawkish US Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage, co-opting Rumsfeld's buzzwords. "We cannot fail in our efforts to protect the American people."

Blue smoke and mirrors aside, NMD is an expensive experiment, and nothing more, says UW Nobelist Fischer. "It will advance engineering and science in the long run," he notes, "but the missile system plan seems to have reached the point of being practically absurd."

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