The Force is with her

The Cold War’s over, but Star Wars funds are sky-high.

In Los Angeles, where Star Wars is considered a singular moment in film history, the movie’s more expensive namesake — the anti-missile program popularized by Ronald Reagan — is still very much a present-day reality. And no Democrat in Congress is more responsible for keeping the project’s funds flowing than California Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). A political moderate who generally votes with her fellow Democrats on domestic issues, Harman is a zealot when it comes to the care and feeding of military contractors. Harman’s congressional district, stretching from Venice to San Pedro, has the country’s largest concentration of defense contractors — including Hughes Electronics, TRW, and Northrop Grumman — and their generous support has been the cornerstone of her political career.

Harman is the leading recipient of PAC contributions on the House National Security Committee, which oversees the Department of Defense and its Star Warsproject. In the 1995-96 election cycle, her sponsors include such Star Wars luminaries as Raytheon ($500), Boeing ($1,500), BDM ($2,500), TRW ($3,000), Lockheed Martin ($3,750), Rockwell ($4,000), Hughes ($9,500), McDonnell Douglas ($10,000), and Northrop Grumman ($10,000).

For defense contractors, a little political investment can go a long way. In 1995, PACs associated with contractors gave House members nearly $3 million; in return for this modest favor, Congress doled out more than $75 billion for new military hardware and R&D.

Almost seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, defense spending remains at Cold War levels, and talk of a “peace dividend” has long been forgotten. On the contrary, the House’s recommended $13 billion increase in military spending this year was financed by equal reductions in spending on domestic programs. And there is no better example of this folly than the repeatedly discredited, but still healthily funded, Star Wars program.

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.


The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.