Star Wars Goes Online … Crashes


On a chilly July morning on the Alaskan tundra, the first Interceptor missile was lowered into a silo at Fort Greeley. Over the following weeks, five more missiles were planted into their silos, as the Ballistic Missile Defense System, once known as Star Wars, went on line. As part of Bush’s accelerated deployment scheme, the Pentagon is set to install a total of 10 missiles in Alaska and 10 more at Ft. Vandenburg Air Base in California in 2004, with dozens more to follow over the next two years. The scheme is so accelerated that the Pentagon admits that they have no idea how the missiles would be launched, who would give the order to launch them and whether they will have the even the remotest chance of hitting their target.

During a campaign stop at a Boeing plant in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, Bush lauded the missile program and chided its critics. “Opponents of missile defense are living in the past,” Bush told the Boeing workers and executives. “We’re living in the future. We’re going to do what’s necessary to protect this country. We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world: You fire; we’re going to shoot it down.” Boeing, of course, is one of the three main contractors for the Pentagon’s missile defense program, the most expensive weapons system in the federal budget.

Bush painted his pet project as a technological and military triumph. But he surely knew better. In fact, he had just been briefed that the multi-billion dollar scheme was plagued with problems from top to bottom. According to the Washington Post, an internal Pentagon report presented to Bush in early August 2004 concluded that the ground based Interceptor rockets now humming in their Alaskan silos will have less than a 20 percent chance of knocking down a nuclear missile carried on a primitive North Korean rocket.

In a separate briefing, General James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, head of the US Strategic Command, the Pentagon wing responsible for nuclear war planning, told Bush that the system doesn’t work and that the missile’s testers don’t know why. He told the president that costs were soaring; yet, little progress was being made in getting the system online in even a primitive way. The briefing seems to have made even less of an impression on Bush than the National Intelligence Estimates he received on the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. He refuses to admit the flaws in the technology, the incentive it gives other nations, such as China, Russia, North Korea and Pakistan, to accelerate their nuclear missiles, or justify the staggering costs (more than the entire State Department budget) in a time of soaring budget deficits.

Even more confounding, though the missiles are poised on alert, the Pentagon has yet to develop a set of rules for spelling out who has the authority to launch the Interceptors in case of a missile attack. Such guidelines are needed because the computer software system that is meant to operate the network of Interceptors automatically isn’t even close to completion. No one knows what it will look like, when it will be ready or if it will work. Moreover, the mysterious X-Band radars which are meant to detect incoming nuclear missiles and feed their speed and location to the guidance system of the Interceptors are not yet in place and won’t be for years.

Of course, Rumseld’s decision to delay issuing a directive might be prudent, considering the fact that the Interceptors have never proven that they can hit their target in a combat situation. In testing over the past decade, the Interceptor missile’s track record is far from impressive. For starters, the missile has yet to be tested when attached to its rocket booster, meant to power the missile into outer space where it is supposed to track down and destroy incoming nuclear missiles.

In eight flight tests, the Interceptors, launched without boosters, hit their target only five times. Yet in those tests, the Interceptor was travelling at less that half the speed it would need to under operational conditions.

Bush, given his academic record, might consider a 60 percent test score an impressive achievement. But it’s a pretty dismal showing for a missile system that has consumed nearly $70 billion, especially when you factor in the fact that to date all of the Interceptor tests have been fixed. For starters, the target missiles carried the equivalent of a homing beacon that “lit them up”, in the words of one tester, so that the Interceptors could find them in the skies over the Pacific.

The weapons testers also knew when and where the missiles had been launched, as well as their trajectory, speed and path. In other words, they knew where they were going and when they would be there. Hitting the target only 60 percent of the time under these rigged conditions is like flunking the test even after you’ve stolen the exam.

The Interceptors performance didn’t improve over time and the Pentagon testers had little idea about where to locate the source of the problem or how to upgrade the missile’s batting average. Instead of going back to the drawing board, the Pentagon, in December 2002, simply declared that the Interceptor was ready for deployment and stopped further testing.

The decision was ridiculed by Senator Carl Levin, one of the few Democrats who have tried to put the brakes on the Missile Defense juggernaut. “The decision to field an as-yet-unproven system has been accompanied by a decision to eliminate or delay the very testing that must be conducted to show whether the system is effective.”

Even when the testing demonstrates the failure of a system the Pentagon spins it as a success. A case in point. On June 18, 2003, the Navy launched a SM-3 missile from a Aegis cruiser ship off of Hawai’i at a mock war warhead launched from test range on the island of Kauai. The SM-3 missile is the second layer of the Missile Defense system, designed to collide with intermediate range missiles. The SM-3 missed its target by a wide margin. Another strike out for the Missile Defense team.

But hold on. That’s not how the Pentagon saw it. In an interview the following day, Chris Taylor, the spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, hailed the failure as a success. “I wouldn’t call it a failure,” Taylor said. “Because the intercept was not the primary objective. It’s still considered a success, in that we gained engineering data. We just don’t know why it didn’t hit.”

This is a rich vein of Orwellian doubletalk. According to the Pentagon’s own records, the purpose of the Kauai test was to evaluate the performance of the solid-state engine for the guidance system of the SM-3 missile. The objective was to obliterate the mock warhead. It failed. Moreover, the data collected from the test, by Taylor’s own admission, didn’t help the testers to detect why it missed the target. Hard to find much solace in those results.

* * *

After 20 years and $100 billion, the Missile Defense program, hatched in a flight of cinematic fancy by Ronald Reagan and nurtured by leaders of both parties, remains little more than a science fiction fantasy. None of its dozens of components work. Many core parts of the scheme remain in an embryonic state. Others haven’t even made it to the drawing board. And, after four years of fruitless work, the team assigned to develop the space-based laser system quietly disbanded

But Bush and Rumsfeld remain undeterred. From the beginning, the Bush administration promoted missile defense as its top national defense priority. Even after the attacks of September 11, the missile defense program gorges on far more money than any other weapons system. Indeed, the Bush administration has spent more than twice as much money on the failed missile defense system than on any other weapons program.

The first preemptive strike launched by Bush wasn’t those cruise missiles slamming into huts in the Hindu Kush or the neighborhoods of Baghdad, but on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

But if the objective was to intimidate North Korea into dropping its nuclear weapons program, the gambit must be considered a staggering failure. The Korean’s response to the pre-emptive war on Iraq, launched on the bogus grounds that Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons, and the mad rush to install the Interceptor missiles spurred Pyongyang into transferring 8,000 fuel rods to gear up. Did the plan backfire? Perhaps. But a more cynical view holds that this was the Bush administration’s covert intent. They need a nuclear North Korea (and Iran and Pakistan) in order to have the requisite bogeyman to justify their imperial project and the annual disbursement of tens of billions to the weapons industry.

This essay is excerpted from JEFFREY ST. CLAIR’s new book, Grand Theft Pentagon (Common Courage Press).

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering from the War on Terror. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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