Peaced Off

National Missile Defense rankles OC peaceniks

Photo by Jack GouldA new Orange County peace coalition was formed in an Orange conference room on Sept. 29, but any urge to celebrate was quickly muted by a military expert's sobering news that the U.S. and Russia are on the brink of blowing each other to bits.

About 60 Green Party members, religious types and other pacifists gathered at the St. Joseph Center to launch a group longtime peacenik Tim Carpenter dubbed the Orange County Coalition to Defeat the Son of Star Wars—the National Missile Defense (NMD).

"The Cold War is over, and many of us are still awaiting the peace dividend we were all promised," said Carpenter, who then gave everyone a homework assignment: write a letter to Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), asking why she keeps voting—as did her despised predecessor, Robert K. Dornan—to approve the NMD.

Hoping to further spread the anti-NMD message before November's presidential election, the coalition is scheduled to meet again on Oct. 22 and to organize a Nov. 4 candlelight vigil outside South Coast Plaza. But instead of figuring out ways to fit "Orange County Coalition to Defeat the Son of Star Wars or the National Missile Defense" onto protest signs, members of the new coalition listened with horror to guest speaker Bruce G. Blair, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Defense Information.

Blair spent less of his talk denigrating NMD than he did spooking the hell out of everyone about the "hair-trigger alert" status of American and Russian weapons of mass destruction. So much for the Cold War being over.

A former Brookings Institution fellow and Air Force missile launch officer, Blair wrote a paper for Congress 15 years ago on the dangers of quick-strike nuclear capabilities that was deemed so sensitive it's been locked up since. His Center for Defense Information is among the most respected think tanks advocating the downsizing of defense and conversion of military resources.

The U.S. and Russia have about 6,000 strategic long-range missiles in their arsenals. About 2,500 on both sides are pointed at each other and ready to strike "on very high alert," or what Blair calls "hair-trigger alert."

Blair said the typical American launch officer is in his early 20s, holed up with a partner in a bunker out in the middle of nowhere, and responsible for between five and 50 missiles aimed at China and Russia. The total time to get an order, lock on to a target, and fire can be as short as two minutes and—dispelling popular myth—can be done without presidential authorization.

Relying on procedures "where we put people in a position to make the right decision every time" in mere minutes is stupid enough. When you consider the drill is remarkably similar in Russia, it's downright scary. Last month, the world witnessed the consequences of a deteriorating Russian military when a nuclear submarine sank and everyone aboard perished. There is no reason to expect the equipment and forces surrounding Russia's nuclear arsenal to be in any better shape, Blair suggested.

Blair travels the world talking to current and former strategic-defense officers. He's discovered that many in Russia live in poverty, have to work second jobs to make ends meet, and often show up tired to monitor radars and make snap decisions that could prevent or facilitate a nuclear holocaust.

"The Russian military is subject to the same conditions as all of Russia: poverty, poor health and alcoholism," Blair said. "They are demoralized, alienated by a state and society that no longer respects the military. It's simply an accident waiting to happen over there. If you applied U.S. standards to Russia, the Secretary of Defense would decertify the nuclear force. It's dangerous, and we have not faced up to that."

Recent history shows how perilous the shell game has become. In 1995, Russian radar picked up a possible nuclear attack by U.S. Trident missiles. Russian counterattack procedures got all the way to then-president Boris Yeltsin's launch-key suitcase before it was determined the "attack" was actually a harmless Norwegian missile test.

However, at a time when the U.S. and Russia should be pulling missiles off hair-trigger alert, along comes what Blair considers the absolute worst tonic: NMD. The system would essentially put that Reagan-era relic Star Wars—lasers affixed to orbiting satellites, zapping missiles launched at the U.S.—on the ground.

Taking a NMD baby step, the Clinton administration has lined up an Alaskan mountain range to host an initial NMD site. But even a limited NMD will cost taxpayers $60 billion over 15 years, according to an April Congressional Budget Office report. Meanwhile, the first three of 19 NMD tests —which cost $100 million a pop—have been utter failures. Another test is scheduled for Oct. 7. And there's a local hook: NMD is being developed at Boeing's Space and Communications plant in Seal Beach and TRW's laser-research center in San Juan Capistrano.

Some muckety-mucks defend NMD and hair-trigger alert because of the threat to the U.S. posed by so-called "rogue states." Blair calls that a joke.

"I believe we need a designated enemy," he said. "When Russia was eliminated, the rogue-state concept was born. It's not any one country because no one country constitutes a threat, so it's a collection of states. Rogue states have created a cottage industry of new targets for strategic command.

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