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[whitespace] Going Ballistic

More useless missiles. Guess who pays?

By Bob Harris

LAST SATURDAY NIGHT, I was walking to a comedy gig here in L.A. when suddenly I was stopped cold by the sight of something truly out of the ordinary. (Which, in West Hollywood, is saying something.) A whole chunk of the northwestern sky was suddenly filled with what looked like an enormous jet contrail. And as night began to fall, the plume dispersed into bizarre shapes, lit in rainbow colors by the setting sun.

And it was a little disturbing.

Enough so that dozens of people called the police, asking if they were seeing a prelude to war, some weird secret technology, or possibly even the beginning of Armageddon.

What we were all watching was the launch of a refurbished Minuteman II missile (made by Lockheed Martin), outfitted with both a dummy warhead and a decoy. The Pentagon says that 3,000 miles away, a prototype missile defense system eventually destroyed the dummy warhead--meaning that supposedly the world is now a little safer for democracy, and so we taxpayers should pony up another $28 billion to keep the project alive.

Yet over the years, expectations for success in such tests have become so low that the original mission of such weapons has been abandoned entirely, and the Pentagon openly admits that even a failure would have been called a success, if the reason for the failure were merely known.

On March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a satellite-based anti-ballistic missile system to shield the United States from nuclear attack.

Fortunately for world peace, much Star Wars technology proved to be remarkably little more than a waste of money. Eventually, even the Pentagon conceded that a comprehensive nuclear umbrella was an impossibility. In other words, even if the SDI had worked, it wouldn't have worked.

In 1993, the SDI was renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense, but the BMD still sucked up only about $4 billion a year. However, in 1994, the GOP won control of Congress, and Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House. The largest employer in Newt's home district? Lockheed.

Unsurprisingly, the budget for Star Wars began again to increase, even as the Office of Technology Assessment was defunded out of existence.

The new Star Wars--now conceived around ground-based missiles--is designed not to shield the U.S. from all-out attack, but merely defend against a mere handful of missiles hypothetically launched by terrorists or by what the media call "rogue states."

But is this a legitimate rationale for continuing BMD? Not according to our own government.

Quoting from a September 1999 report of the National Intelligence Council: "The Russian threat . . . will continue to be the most robust and lethal, considerably more so than that posed by China, and orders of magnitude more than that potentially posed by other nations."

Countries or non-state actors could pursue non-missile delivery options. And even if a "rogue state" did decide to go the ICBM route (again, to quote the NIC's own report), "We assess that countries developing ballistic missiles would also develop various responses to U.S. theater and national defenses. Russia and China each have developed numerous countermeasures and probably are willing to sell the requisite technologies."

How many times should a system be tested before the taxpayers spend billions of dollars on it? Many relatively simple weapons receive dozens of tests. Before its next review in June, the BMD program is receiving exactly three--only two of which it is required to pass (and remember that an understood failure is considered a success).

So come summer, will it gain approval? Of course. Get real.

June of 2000 will be at the peak of the presidential campaign. No candidate will want to look "weak" on defense. Neither can any candidate resist the soft-money campaign donations that major defense contractors can provide.

A SIMILAR MISSILE intercept technology, Lockheed Martin's THAAD (Theatre High Altitude Area Defense) system, failed six straight tests over the last four years while going billions of dollars over budget. However, last August, after a mere two successful tests in tightly controlled conditions, the Pentagon announced it would skip further prototype testing and begin final development of the project.

THAAD's total cost is estimated at only $15.4 billion, with 2007 as the projected implementation date. And BMD is ready to cost us $28 billion more. Since 1983, between $50 billion and $100 billion has been spent. Yet Star Wars turned out to be impossible, and the current scheme of BMD doesn't even address the most likely scenario for attack.

Will the new Star Wars do the job?

If we're talking about maintaining the flow of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to high-tech defense corporations, the answer is: yes.

If we're talking about defending the United States from ballistic missile attack, the answer is: no.

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From the October 7-13, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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