Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

NATIONAL MISSILE DEFENSE: SON OF STAR WARS

National Missile Defense (NMD) is back in the spotlight. Call it "Son of Star Wars." It is not Ronald Reaganís multi-billion dollar fantasy of defense against any and all missiles. Now it is only a multi-billion dollar fantasy of defense against a few missiles. But this offspring is just as wasteful, misguided, and dangerous as its famous parent.

We have spent over 60 billion dollars so far on research, but there is still no evidence that it will work. It has failed most tests. According to the New York Times, all past "successes" and all future tests may very well be rigged. Lockheed was already caught cheating on one test. Two TRW employees charge that their company forced them to falsify data in another.

Many independent scientists have decried the whole idea as impossible. A Pentagon panel, chaired by Reaganís Secretary of the Air Force, recently called it "a rush to failure." We may soon be paying countless billions ($20 billion is the most conservative estimate) for a system that probably wonít work.

But Russia and China will assume that it could work. Then the U.S. could launch its own attacks with no fear of reprisal. Thatís just what the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was designed to prevent. So Russiaís President Putin says that any kind of NMD system would violate the ABM Treaty. Then Russia would consider all arms control agreements canceled and refuse to negotiate any more with a partner who cheats. The Chinese, too, will feel threatened. They recently said they would "not sit on their hands" if NMD is deployed.

The Russians and Chinese know that it is easy to beat any missile defense by overwhelming it with more and more offensive missiles. NMD is a spark that would ignite another round in the nuclear arms race.

That may be just what its supporters want. The forces pushing NMD are the same forces that defeated the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the Senate. They believe that the path to American security lies in more, not fewer, nuclear weapons. If the Russians abrogate all arms control treaties and start building again, it would create an excuse for another Reagan-like buildup of U.S. weapons.

This time, though, the nuke warriorsí goal is total control of every battlefield. They are betting on space-based technology to do it. Frances Fitzgerald winds up her recent history of the drive for missile defense saying: "As always for the Republican right, the goal [is] weapons in spaceóthat is, weapons which, if they materialized, could contribute to an offense, as well as provide a defense for the United States." Space-based NMD technology will take us a big step closer to fighting the next war in outer space.

NMD advocates would have us believe it is all for defense, against such massive "threats" as North Korea or Iraq. These poverty-stricken nations are nowhere near capable of launching a single nuclear warhead. Even if, a decade from now, they have a handful of missiles, the idea that they would attack us is rather far-fetched. Remember The Mouse That Roared? And now the Clinton administration is trying to convince us to do business with the North Koreans yet somehow be terrified of them.

Some observers suspect that the real goal of NMD is to neutralize China. Let us hope they are wrong. Gearing up for war with China is simply too foolish and terrifying to contemplate.

Of course, NMD may have nothing to do with any threat to national security. The real threats may be to the Republican Party and its corporate sponsors. The Clinton administration's big boost in military spending is robbing the Republicans of a favorite issue. Facing the prospect of a 16-year Democratic hold on the White House, the GOP is scrambling for a winning issue. George W. thinks he has that winner in NMD, something to make the Republicans look tougher than the Dems.

The corporations that feed at the Pentagon trough are scrambling too. The end of the cold war put a real crimp in their style. NMD, with its billions guaranteed for decades, looks like their savior. The senators who recently signed two pro-NMD letters received, in total, nearly $2 million in campaign contributions from potential NMD contractors. Just a coincidence?

During the Cold War we spent trillions on weapons and purchased only more fear and insecurity. It would be tragic to start the new century by making the same mistake again.

Two recent polls show that a majority of citizens oppose NMD. Given the powerful forces supporting it, that majority will have to speak out very loudly to make its voice heard. The President is committed to deciding about production and deployment in the next few months. He is waiting to hear from us. His number is 202-456-1111.


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