Star Wars, the Sequel

On March 23, 1983, before a packed joint session of Congress, then-President Ronald Reagan announced plans for a corporate-welfare program of galactic proportions. Reagan proposed deploying a constellation of sensors, satellites, computers, lasers and mirrors to “shield” America from a shower of commie nukes. For the next decade, as the federal government burned $50 billion trying to make Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative work, Democrats derided the plan as “fantasy,” “unworkable” or simply “Star Wars.” By the time Bill Clinton took office in 1993, most Americans figured the old man's dream was pretty much dead.It's not. Star Wars lives on in the National Missile Defense (NMD) program. And so far, it looks every bit as unworkable as Reagan's dream.Two weeks ago, Pentagon officials asked for $6.6 billion to continue funding research into NMD, the Clinton administration's version of Reagan's orbiting shield, which is designed to protect the entire U.S. from a “limited” or accidental nuclear-missile launch. According to the industry-trade magazine Defense Week, this brings total NMD funding to more than $13 billion. The Pentagon will make a formal deployment decision next year, but it wants to have a workable NMD system in place by 2005.For Boeing-the largest commercial-aircraft and defense firm in the U.S.-this is great news. As the top contractor for NMD, Boeing's Anaheim-based Autonetics and Missile Systems Division is designing NMD's orbiting sensors, ground-based radars and rocket interceptors. A Boeing spokesperson couldn't say how much of the $6.6 billion will go to the Anaheim division, where nearly 300 engineers are working on NMD.The missile-defense setup is deceptively simple. First, six satellites carrying infrared sensors orbit the Earth, looking for plumes from a ballistic-missile launch in China/North Korea/Iran/Iraq/ wherever. When one of the satellites locates one, it relays the data to 24 secondary satellites, which track the incoming missile. Then the former missile silo at Grand Forks, North Dakota, the only site in the U.S. authorized to launch anti-ballistic missiles under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, launches an interceptor, which travels so fast it destroys the incoming missile merely by smashing into it.It sounds great, except the Pentagon can't make the simple system work. “Given the history of the weapon system's development, we'd be much more comfortable if [the Pentagon] didn't rush deployment,” said retired Colonel Dan Smith of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Defense Information. “The technology will get better, so we should wait.”Congressional legislation passed last year required Clinton to construct a missile-defense shield “as quickly as possible.” That became the Pentagon's excuse to deploy NMD by 2003. But problems from other, smaller missile-defense tests have prompted concerns that the whole program is moving too fast. For example, the Army's battlefield missile-defense test interceptors have so far missed their targets five out of five times.”Each of those misses cost Lockheed [the Army's contractor] $20 million,” said Smith, who acknowledged that some kind of missile defense is a good idea. “The technical hurdles haven't been overcome by a long shot.”But the Pentagon and Boeing continue to promote NMD in nearly apocalyptic terms, fueling popular fear of a first strike from some “rogue” nation to milk taxpayers of billions of dollars. Boeing fills its NMD press releases with neo-Cold War rhetoric, replacing the Soviet Union with North Korea as the No. 1 Bad Guy. “There also is evidence that a . . . missile is being developed that could allow North Korea to send a 680-pound warhead up to 3,750 miles, or as far as southern Alaska,” read one release. “A smaller payload could extend its range to approximately 6,200 miles, which would potentially threaten additional U.S. territory, including an arc extending from Arizona to Washington. If such scenarios were to transpire today, America would have no defense.”That's quite a statement, considering the U.S. still fields more than 15,000 nukes. Even when the START II treaty begins in 2003, the U.S. will still deploy nearly 7,000 battlefield and strategic nuclear warheads. Smith agreed, saying “the best defense against missiles is to not have any missiles.”Smith outlined additional problems with NMD, such as its inability to find and destroy even a limited strike of 20 missiles from the Grand Forks site. The U.S. apparently agrees, which is why Secretary of State Madeline Albright lobbied the Russians last week for an additional Anti-Ballistic Missile site in Alaska.But even with a second launch site, NMD still may not protect the U.S. from nuclear weapons. Since the orbiting sensors are simply looking for rocket launches, Smith pointed out that the system wouldn't be able to tell a live nuke from a decoy. In addition, NMD does absolutely nothing about the so-called “suitcase bomb”-a nuclear weapon small enough to fit in a car or van and detonated by remote control. Long imagined by futurists but never positively located, such a bomb could theoretically blow up a major city from inside a subway or beneath a skyscraper.So if NMD might not work and isn't countering any current threat anyway, why is it sucking up $13 billion? Here's one possible explanation:In the 1997-1998 election cycle, the Boeing political-action committee (PAC) gave $238,400 to Democratic congressional candidates and $421,375 to Republican candidates. OC's own Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) took $3,500; Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach) took $1,500; Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) took $1,500; Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) took $3,500; and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) took $1,000.In that same cycle, the Boeing PAC gave an additional $185,800 in soft money to the Democratic Party and $192,050 to the Republicans. In 1997, Boeing also spent an incredible $10 million on lobbyists. Some might call that a modest investment.

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