A whole chunk of the northwestern sky was suddenly filled with what looked like an enormous jet contrail. I stared in disbelief, trying to figure out what I was seeing. Other people around me stopped and stared, too. And as night began to fall, the plume dispersed into bizarre shapes, lit in rainbow colors by the setting sun.
It was fascinating and strange and beautiful. And a little disturbing.
Enough so that dozens of people called the police, asking if they were seeing a prelude to war, some weird secret technology, or possibly even the beginning of Armageddon.
What it looked like to me was the scene in "The Day After," when the people of Kansas are shocked to see the missiles actually being launched. Turns out I wasn't far off.
What we were all watching was the launch of a refurbished Minuteman II missile (made by Lockheed Martin), outfitted with both a dummy warhead and a decoy, from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The Pentagon says that 3000 miles away, a prototype missile defense system -- the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (manufactured by Raytheon), mounted on another refurbished Minuteman II and launched from the Marshall Islands -- eventually destroyed the dummy warhead.
What this all is supposed to mean: the world is therefore now a little safer for democracy, and so we taxpayers should pony up another $28 billion to keep the project alive.
Maybe so. But over the years, expectations for success in such tests have become so low that the original mission of such weapons has been abandoned entirely, and the Pentagon openly admits that even a failure would have been called a success, if the reason for the failure were merely known.
Welcome to Star Wars, part II.
On March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a satellite-based anti-ballistic missile system -- originally planned around space-platformed lasers -- to shield the United States from nuclear attack.
Systems of the kind had been proposed decades earlier, but the discussion essentially ended with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty of 1972. Reagan's speech was a major policy shift toward increased military tension.
Critics of Reagan's program immediately pointed out that the plan had three minor shortcomings:
a) it was technically unworkable,
b) it proposed a plain violation of a existing international treaty, and
c) it arguably made war even more likely.
Other than that, Star Wars was a really nifty idea.
To quote from the U.S. intelligence community's own classified 1983 Interagency Intelligence Assessment of Possible Soviet Responses to the US Strategic Defense Initiative, written in the wake of Reagan's speech:
"...there will be a large variety of possible measures the Soviets can choose from to preserve the viability of their ballistic missile forces. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMS) can be upgraded with new boosters, decoys, penetration aids, and multiple warheads. The signatures of these systems can be reduced and new launch techniques and basing schemes can be devised which make them less vulnerable to US missile warning and defensive weapon systems. These systems can also be hardened or modified to reduce their vulnerability to directed energy weapons. The Soviets can employ other offensive systems, particularly manned bombers and long-range cruise missiles with improved penetration aids and stealth technologies, to assume a greater burden of the strategic offensive strike role and to exploit the weaknesses in US air defense capabilities."
In other words, even if SDI had worked, it wouldn't have worked.
The 1972 ABM treaty was clearly worded to apply to large-scale strategic anti-missile systems, defined as tested against targets moving faster the two kilometers per second and above 40 kilometers in altitude.
Since ICBMs move faster than two kilometers per second, and space is slightly higher up than 40 kilometers, the treaty would seem on first glance to apply.
However, the Reagan White House essentially ignored the the ABM treaty, choosing a "broad interpretation" in which the treaty simply didn't apply to the new technology.
(The strange notion that treaties can be unilaterally redefined by one side and still have meaning spurred some controversy. However, the similarly odd notion that treaties become obsolete with technological advances -- i.e., an agreement to put down your muskets becomes null the moment one side invents the machine gun -- received surprisingly little comment.)
Arguments were made, but Washington's historical record (like that of many nations) of obeying only those treaties which are to its own advantage remained intact.
The logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is simple enough for schoolchildren to follow. So is its unraveling, once the balance of power is removed. Suppose an American ABM system worked even modestly well. The Soviet Union would have more reason to threaten a first strike in any crisis, merely to maintain a credible threat. The U.S., in turn, would also be forced into a hair-trigger posture, increasing the risk of inadvertent war from both sides.
In addition, the ability to intercept a fraction of an opponent's missiles, far from a deterrent, obviously creates an incentive for the opponent to build more missiles.
Preventing such obvious endless lunacy was precisely the point of the ABM Treaty.
Fortunately for world peace, much Star Wars technology proved to be remarkably little more than a waste of money. Space-based lasers didn't work. Particle beams didn't work. The little man diving into the bathtub, causing the bowling ball to roll down the chute, shaking the cage until it comes down on the mouse didn't work.
Until very recently, as John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists phrased it, "high-altitude interceptor programs have been unblemished by success, failing to hit their intended targets with a consistency that has surprised even long-time skeptics." Eventually, even the Pentagon conceded that a comprehensive nuclear umbrella was an impossibility.
In 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin renamed the Strategic Defense Initiative, now calling it Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). But BMD still employed pretty much the exact same people and stuff, sucking up only about $4 billion a year.
However, in 1994, the GOP won control of Congress, and Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House.
The largest employer in Newt's home district? Lockheed.
Unsurprisingly, the budget for Star Wars began again to increase, even as the Office of Technology Assessment -- the government agency charged with providing Congress with objective critiques and feasibility studies on such things -- was defunded out of existence.
So why the name change, from SDI to BMD? "Strategic," with its implication of great utility in the master plan of a grand war, clearly was by now an obvious misnomer; tellingly, the new name implies merely defense from individual missiles.
Indeed, the new Star Wars -- now conceived around ground-based missiles -- is designed not to shield the U.S. from all-out attack, but merely defend against a mere handful of missiles hypothetically launched by terrorists or what the media calls "rogue states" -- typically Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria (which, in spite of their obvious differences, are often cartoonishly lumped together as a sort of geopolitical Legion Of Doom).
But is this a legitimate rationale for continuing BMD?
No. Not according to our own government, anyway.
Quoting from the September 1999 report of the National Intelligence Council (a key CIA advisory panel), "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015:"
"We project that during the next 15 years the United States most likely will face ICBM threats from Russia, China, and North Korea, probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq... The Russian threat, although significantly reduced, will continue to be the most robust and lethal, considerably more so than that posed by China, and orders of magnitude more than that potentially posed by other nations..."
Notice that the pros don't consider the "rogue states" any big ballistic deal. (For good reason: you'd need stuff like actual missiles and viable nuclear programs and whatnot, which they basically ain't got.) Syria and Libya aren't even on the NIC's list. The main threat is from Russia -- which, let's recall, has enough warheads to render BMD completely meaningless.
But one of the "rogue states" still might well launch a single warhead, right? Nope. They're not stupid. Again, quoting from the newest NIC report:
"Countries or non-state actors could pursue non-missile delivery options, most of which:
Are less expensive than developing and producing ICBMs.
Can be covertly developed and employed; the source of the weapon could be masked in an attempt to evade retaliation.
Probably would be more reliable than ICBMs that have not completed rigorous testing and validation programs.
Probably would be more accurate than emerging ICBMs over the next 15 years.
Probably would be more effective for disseminating biological warfare agent than a ballistic missile.
Would avoid missile defenses...
[I]nitial indigenous nuclear weapon designs are likely to be too large and heavy for a modest-sized ballistic missile but still suitable for delivery by ship, truck, or even airplane. Furthermore, a country (or non-state actor) is likely to have only a few nuclear weapons, at least during the next 15 years. Reliability of delivery would be a critical factor; covert delivery methods could offer reliability advantages over a missile. Not only would a country want the warhead to reach its target, it would want to avoid an accident with a WMD warhead at the missile-launch area. On the other hand, a ship sailing into a port could provide secure delivery to limited locations, and a nuclear detonation, either in the ship or on the dock, could achieve the intended purpose. An airplane, either manned or unmanned, could also deliver a nuclear weapon before any local inspection, and perhaps before landing. Finally, a nuclear weapon might also be smuggled across a border or brought ashore covertly."
Think about it: pretend you're a crazed dictator hell-bent to wipe out Pittsburgh. (Nothing personal, guys. Actually, there are people in Pittsburgh I love very much. Just making a point.) Are you gonna spend all your cash on a big-ass missile system that takes years to develop -- thereby all but guaranteeing satellite detection and a pre-emptive attack from the U.S. -- and which in any case leaves your fingerprints all over the attack, guaranteeing your subsequent annihilation? Or are you gonna just have a few guys smuggle the bomb parts into Canada, drive it over at Niagara Falls in the back of a VW minibus, and then simply pull the trigger on Three Rivers Stadium?
(The stadium, by the way, can go, as far as I'm concerned.)
And even if a "rogue state" did decide to go the ICBM route (again, quote the NIC's own report):
"We assess that countries developing ballistic missiles would also develop various responses to US theater and national defenses. Russia and China each have developed numerous countermeasures and probably are willing to sell the requisite technologies. Many countries, such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq probably would rely initially on readily available technology÷including separating RVs [Re-entry Vehicles], spin-stabilized RVs, RV reorientation, radar absorbing material (RAM), booster fragmentation, low-power jammers, chaff, and simple (balloon) decoys÷to develop penetration aids and countermeasures. These countries could develop countermeasures based on these technologies by the time they flight test their missiles."
In short, there's little valid rationale for the BMD Star Wars program.
And that's assuming any of this stuff will ever even work.
How many times should a system be tested before the taxpayers spend billions of dollars on it? Many relatively simple weapons receive dozens of tests. Some receive well over 100.
How many tests are scheduled for the Ballistic Missile Defense? Including Saturday's, prior to its next review in June, the BMD program is receiving exactly... *three* -- only two of which it is required to pass (and remember that an understood failure is considered a success).
So come summer, will it gain approval? Of course. Get real.
June of 2000 will be at the peak of the presidential campaign. No candidate will want to look "weak" on defense, giving an opponent a hot-button campaign issue. Neither can any candidate resist the soft money campaign donations that major defense contractors can provide. The arms industry is now so powerful that whether or not these systems actually work is almost irrelevant.
Another similar -- and to some extent competing -- missile intercept technology, Lockheed Martin's THAAD (Theatre High Altitude Area Defense) system, failed six straight tests over the last four years while going billions of dollars over budget.
However, last August, after a mere two successful tests in tightly-controlled conditions, the Pentagon announced it would skip further prototype testing and begin final development of the project.
Two tests in controlled situations don't necessarily mean squat to actual combat conditions. It's the difference between a practice free throw in an empty gym and trying to drive the lane on Michael Jordan with the NBA title on the line.
For example, in spite of what Gulf War reporters said on TV, the General Accounting Office later determined that the Patriot missile -- which had passed numerous preliminary tests -- actually performed like (paraphrasing the GAO slightly here) crap. The problem was that incoming Scuds fragmented as the re-entered the atmosphere, creating an inadvertent set of decoys the Patriot couldn't handle.
Imagine how tough things will be if, as the CIA says will happen in response, the missiles have intentional countermeasures.
THAAD is now two-for-eight shooting free throws on its own home court. Total cost: only $15.4 billion. Projected implementation date: 2007.
And BMD is next in line, ready to cost us $28 billion more.
In the 16 years since Ronald Reagan first proposed Star Wars, between $50 and $100 billion (depending on who crunches the numbers and counts up what's what) has been spent. What do we have to show for the money?
Star Wars turned out to be impossible. No intercept system has ever approached reliability. The current scheme of BMD doesn't even address the most likely scenario for attack. And another $28.3 billion is about to be thrown on the fire.
Bottom line: will the new Star Wars do the job? Yes and no.
If we're talking about maintaining the flow of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to high-tech defense corporations, the answer is: yes.
If we're talking about defending the United States from ballistic missile attack, the answer is: no.
Bob Harris is a radio commentator, political writer, and humorist who has spoken at almost 300 colleges nationwide.