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Star Wars, Episode Two
Tim Francis-Wright

27 May 2001

One of the stated goals of George Bush and his allies in Congress is to build a system to defend the United States from attack by ballistic missiles. In a speech earlier this month, he called for "a new framework that allows us to build missile defenses to counter the different threats of today's world." The missile defenses in this framework would be less ambitious than those proposed by President Reagan. But Episode 2 of Star Wars suffers from many of the same flaws as the original. It will be egregiously expensive. It will be relatively easy for an adversary to counter. Finally, it ignores the different threats to security inherent in today's world, which no longer revolves around a Moscow-Washington axis.

The ballistic missile defense proposed by President Bush will, even by the Pentagon's own numbers, cost more than 100 billion dollars. The country's attempts to date at missile defense have resulted in no permanently operational systems at all. According to numbers compiled by the Center for Defense Information, the United States has already wasted billions of dollars on pipe dreams. We spent about $10 billion on the Nike-X, Zeus, Sentinel, and Safeguard systems. We spent $70.7 billion from fiscal years 1984 through 1994, and several billion more through the present day. (Adjusted for inflation, these numbers rise substantially.) Recent Pentagon figures put the cost of the President's plan at a modest $115 billion. This would be a huge amount of money if the system made the country more secure, or even threatened to work.

Star Wars, Episode 2 is a more modest plan that President Reagan's ambitious plan, which featured exotic lasers, particle beam weapons and the like. All of the exotic theoretical accouterments of the original Star Wars plan failed to produce anything tangible. By contrast, Episode 2 does not promise anything exotic. There will be ground-based interceptors to hit warheads in mid-trajectory, in the outskirts of outer space. The technology requires no scientific breakthroughs. But it does require a huge improvement over the test results to date.

Despite the more modest goals and infrastructure required for the new episode of Star Wars, its proponents ignore a very basic problem. Any adversary advanced enough to produce ballistic missiles with nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads is also advanced enough to circumvent the entire system. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that "technically simple" countermeasures could overwhelm the system.

An adversary could:

  1. Divide chemical or biological weapons into an arbitrarily large number of warheads.
  2. Include a huge number of decoys with each real warhead. These decoys would often be balloons.
  3. Disguise warheads to look like decoys, most easily by putting balloons around them.
  4. Use liquid nitrogen or other refrigerants to cool incoming warheads so infrared sensors could not sense them

Ballistic missile defenses, like the proposed National Missile Defense system, work only against ballistic missiles, those launched on a projectile course. Star Wars Episode 2 does nothing to protect against cruise missiles, unmanned airplanes carrying warheads. It does nothing against warheads smuggled into the United States. It does nothing against warheads on boats, trucks, or other vehicles.

Another, more basic, problem with ballistic missile defense is that overwhelming a defense only requires more offense. The first Soviet operational defensive system, in place since the early 1970s around Moscow, was the impetus for the first American missiles with more than one warhead per missile. By 1975, when the United States first had a defensive system in place around its missile fields in North Dakota, the Soviet Union had a reliable way to place independently-targeted warheads on each missile. By the end of 1976, the Pentagon deactivated the site because it was incapable of protecting the missile field from any foreseeable attack.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 was a landmark in arms control. It limited a class of defensive weapons to very specific uses (originally, two installations per country, later one installation per country). It established a standing committee to resolve disputes. It specified that each party had the right to use satellites to verify the terms of the treaty. It solved the pressing need for security of two very different countries. Both the United States and the Soviet Union recognized that defensive systems had many flaws. If they were too powerful, they could force an adversary to build offensive systems to counteract them. Even worse, they could be seen by an adversary as a gruesome appendage to a nuclear first strike. A leaky missile shield might not be so leaky if the only warheads laucnhed against it were the surviving weapons after a first strike. The ABM Treaty allowed both countries to scale down their nuclear paranoia, because it kept either country from thinking it was invulnerable.

The early systems that the ABM Treaty regulated, and even the Star Wars plans of Ronald Reagan, all concerned themselves with missiles from the Soviet Union. Even though the world has had six overt nuclear states since 1974, when India exploded its first atomic bomb, the United States faces a world today without a natural enemy. While the stated purpose of Star Wars Episode 2 is to protect the United States from the actions of a rogue nation, its origins are in the old plans for protection against Soviet attack.

The last 10 years have created a situation in which three countries--India, China, and Pakistan--are all at odds over territory and prestige. Already, the Bush administration's talk of a missile defense has encouraged the Chinese government to talk of increasing the number of its offensive missiles. Given tensions in Southwest Asia, India and Pakistan are likely to follow. Preventing the effects of accidental launches or small attacks from rogue states is not ignoble, but spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a system that will just encourage paranoia is not the way to go about it.

George Bush has surrounded himself with advisors with a great deal of diplomatic and military knowledge. They should be able to tell him why the United States has never feared attack, accidental or planned, from Britain or France. These countries are our allies, and allies do not target each other for destruction. They should be able to tell him why countries like Sweden gave up on nuclear weapons programs even though they had the technology and money to follow through. Many countries have decided that nuclear weapons are more bane than boon. They should be able to tell him why even countries like North Korea have been willing to negotiate prohibitions against testing ballistic missiles. Most countries realize that military might is just one measure of security.

It is not folly to spend money, even great sums of it, on security. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States and other nations possessing nuclear weapons, have dual obligations. They have pledged toward reducing their own nuclear arsenals, and they have pledged to keep other states from possessing new arsenals. We can find ways to reduce tensions that could lead to nuclear war. We can discourage nations from actions, like ballistic missile testing, that encourage reciprocal paranoia. We can encourage nations to learn from our own brushes with death. None of this will be easy, or even cheap, but it is necessary. It would be part of a new framework for American foreign policy. But it would not come from Boeing.

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