News to you? You thought Star Wars had gone the way of the Gipper and the Evil Empire?
Well, think again. Only the acronym has changed. To confuse the uninitiated, Clinton renamed SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), now calling it BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense). But, $40 billion later, the same contractors are still trying to get the same bugs out of the same hopeless anti-missile machines, despite the absence of a credible ballistic missile threat.
Until Bob Dole tried to make it into a summer campaign issue, Star Wars had pretty much fallen out of the public spotlight. The media, which had beefed up its defense coverage in the early '80s, cut back drastically once the Berlin Wall fell. But there's been no comparable decline in Star Wars spending, which continues on a Reagan-era scale.
Nor is it for want of news that the major media stopped reporting on Star Wars. The expensive trade newsletters "Military Space" ($575/year) and "BMD Monitor" ($787/year) keep their industry readers up to date with the latest news on contracting opportunities. Indeed, in the last two years two new Star Wars newsletters have been launched: "Inside Missile Defense" ($445/year) and "Missile Defense Report" ($350/year).
These newsletters provide contractors and their political representatives with details on Star Wars unavailable to the taxpaying public. For though national interests no longer require such levels of missile defense mania, a wide range of political factions and powerful institutions have hitched their stars to Star Wars.
It has long been an article of faith among Republicans that Reagan's missile defense program brought about the demise of the Evil Empire. So it's hardly surprising that Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" included Star Wars among its 10 planks. But congressional Democrats have been only slightly less enthusiastic in their support.
Earlier this year, Dole latched on to Star Wars and introduced the Defend America Act in an effort to paint Clinton as soft on defense. But so fulsome is the president's embrace of Star Wars, the act's supporters were hard-pressed to advocate anything Clinton had not already endorsed.
In their enthusiasm for Star Wars, politicians tend to recall President Bush's praise for the Patriot's virtually perfect performance during the Gulf War, as shown on CNN, but tend to forget the subsequent revelations that the Patriot missiles missed far more Scuds than they hit over Saudi Arabia. An inauspicious omen when you consider that the low-tech Scuds flew more slowly than the missiles Star Wars is supposed to defend against.
Nonetheless, missile defense aerospace contractors continue to consume billions in taxpayer dollars (nearly $4 billion in the last year alone) with astonishingly few results. The corporate ad for one anti-missile interceptor brags that it has achieved 42 out of 43 test objectives -- neglecting to mention the one it has failed: actually hitting the target. (This year, Congress increased BMD funding $1 billion over the Pentagon's request.)
Rep. Harman and the other members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- who supervise the military budget see nothing peculiar in this. And why should they? They benefit from a system in which the billions of taxpayer dollars they direct to military contractors magically transform into the thousands of campaign dollars that help keep them in office.
John Pike is the director of the Space Policy Project for the Federation of American Scientists.