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The Bush administration’s faith-based belief in missile defense

Despite the Bush administration’s claim that fighting terrorism was a high priority for them from the moment they took office, we have learned in recent days that in reality they had two foreign policy obsessions, neither of which had anything to do with terrorism. The first, unsurprisingly, was Iraq. But the other obsession is even more ridiculous: missile defense.

Mere days before September 11, President Bush threatened to veto a defense appropriations bill because of a proposed amendment to divert money from missile defense to counterterrorism. They had a clear choice: missile defense or terrorism. Which was more important to them? Missile defense.

And now we learn that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to give a speech on September 11, outlining the administration’s national security strategy. The main focus of the speech? The importance of missile defense.

Fighting terrorism is all well and good, Rice would argue, but to keep America safe what we really need is Star Wars.

So it’s worth taking a look not only at the administration’s priorities, but also at missile defense itself. Since the Strangelovian nuclear scientist Edward Teller convinced Ronald Reagan that we could erect a magical shield over our country that would forever protect us from attack (and Reagan never let the facts get in the way of an appealing fantasy), the American people have been paying through the nose for a system that doesn’t work, probably won’t ever work, and most importantly, wouldn’t work even if it did work.

It doesn’t work, and it probably won’t ever work.

Incredibly, the Bush administration plans to take the unprecedented step of deploying a missile defense system without a single successful realistic test of the system, nor any evidence that it will ever be able to do what it’s supposed to. Why? For two reasons. First, once the system is in place, appropriations inertia makes it awfully difficult to kill it. Second, they don’t have much choice, because missile defense has been an unmitigated failure.

The Pentagon’s tests of missile defense systems have to this point come in two forms: failures, and rigged tests (most of which fail, too). In order to claim a “success,” they have done things like place a homing beacon on the incoming missile so the system can find it.

The main technical problem of missile defense, even beyond the difficulty of hitting a bullet with a bullet, is the issue of decoys. If you wanted to launch a missile at a country that had a missile defense system, you’d include decoys – for instance, you can wrap the missile in a Mylar balloon and send it up surrounded by a bunch of other Mylar balloons. In the vacuum of space, it’s just impossible for the defense system to tell the difference between them. The people working on this problem have yet to come up with a way to defeat even the most rudimentary of realistic decoys. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan put it,

In the past six years of flight tests, here is what the Pentagon’s missile-defense agency has demonstrated: A missile can hit another missile in mid-air as long as a) the operators know exactly where the target missile has come from and where it’s going; b) the target missile is flying at a slower-than-normal speed; c) it’s transmitting a special beam that exaggerates its radar signature, thus making it easier to track; d) only one target missile has been launched; and e) the “attack” happens in daylight.

Even if it worked, it wouldn’t work

In her speech scheduled for September 11, 2001, Rice was going to say this: “We need to worry about the suitcase bomb, the car bomb and the vial of sarin released in the subway…[But] why put deadbolt locks on your doors and stock up on cans of mace and then decide to leave your windows open?”

For her commitment to Star Wars, Rice ought to be nominated for the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Award (yes, there is such a thing, paid for by your tax dollars). But her analogy is utter baloney. Even to stick with the home as metaphor for the nation, it would be more accurate to say that missile defense is tantamount to mounting an anti-aircraft battery on your roof as a way to keep thieves from stealing your stereo, while leaving your doors and windows open. Will the thieves try to land a V-22 Osprey aircraft on your roof? They might, but chances are that since Ospreys are a little expensive and unreliable, they’ll just walk in the door.

Putting aside the fact that terrorists don’t have ballistic missiles, let’s say one day someone who does, like Kim Jong Il, decides to commit personal and national suicide by launching a nuclear attack against the United States. And let’s say we had a perfectly functioning missile defense system in place. Would the attack be foiled? Not for a second – Kim could just put his weapon on a boat, or a plane, or any of a dozen other delivery systems. Missile defense protects us from nothing.

But this administration, the entire Republican Party, and healthy numbers of Democrats are still gripped by the idea that we can erect a missile defense “shield,” a big dome sitting atop the United States that keeps us safe from all who would do us harm. The Bush administration has requested an increase of 20% in the missile defense budget for next year, to over $10 billion. The eventual cost of missile defense is hard to predict, but given that Bush wants to spend over $50 billion in the next five years alone, it’s reasonable to conclude that the total cost of the program from this point forward will easily exceed $100 billion and perhaps $200 billion. Although it’s difficult to precisely calculate what we’ve spent since the 1980s, reasonable estimates climb toward $100 billion, which has bought us…well, nothing.

Democrats have yet to find a way to critique the orgy of profligacy that is the American military-industrial complex without succumbing to the Republican charge that anyone who opposes any weapons system, no matter how idiotic or ill-conceived, must want Americans to die. So they go along and pledge their support to missile defense, as Al Gore did in 2000 and as John Kerry does today. Neither man’s position was particularly defensible or particularly courageous (and both are smart enough, and know enough about arms control and defense, to know better). But with support from both sides of the aisle, Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy will live on, eating up resources that could be used to actually keep America safe.

When the Bush administration took office, they were convinced that the most serious threat America faced wasn’t Al Qaeda, but ballistic missiles. The faith-based belief in missile defense (immune to both empirical evidence and logic itself) has already cost us dearly.

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