Star Wars works!

Reagan's pipe dream of an anti-missile umbrella over America is about to come true. Isn't it?

Published June 7, 1996 9:55AM (EDT)

They said it couldn't be done, but the big news out of Washington these days is that Star Wars works after all. Back in 1983, when President Reagan announced his plan to build a "peace shield" to protect the United States from nuclear attack, the idea was criticized as a violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and a dangerous step towards a nuclear first strike.

A more mundane objection was that the system could not be built. To shoot down missiles hurtling through space at nearly 15,000 miles an hour may look easy in video arcades, but is fiendishly difficult in real life, like deflecting a bullet in mid-flight by hitting it with a bullet of your own. The American Physics Society concluded in a 1987 study that Star Wars was not only impossible with existing technology, but that ten more years of research was needed to learn whether it might ever be feasible.

Here we are, ten years later. Star Wars has been re-named "missile defense." It is no longer touted as a shield against massive Soviet bombardment, but it can beat back a limited attack by lesser nuclear powers like China. That's right, the technology works! At least that's the message conveyed by recent press coverage.

Democrats and Republicans alike have been caught up in the Star Wars revival. In a widely-reported speech at the Coast Guard Academy on May 22, President Clinton announced he wants to spend $13.5 billion on research and development over the next three years and decide in 1999 whether to deploy the system. Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich are even more gung ho. Their Defend America Act aims to fully deploy the system by 2003.

Most striking about recent news coverage is how everyone -- from the politicians to the reporters to the analysts they cited -- takes it for granted that a missile defense can indeed be built, and that the choice of whether to do so right away or a few years from now is ours to make. The closest hint of a doubt came in a single sentence in the New York Times: "No system capable of (defending the nation from a missile attack) has been built."

Now, I spent most of the past five years living outside the United States, so I thought maybe I had simply missed the news of a Star Wars breakthrough, just as I sometimes draw a blank on books and movies that came out while I was away. But it turns out there was nothing to miss. Missile defense remains a mirage.

According to independent experts, the systems under development have consistently failed even the so-called "strapped-down chicken" test: hitting a missile whose speed and trajectory are known in advance. Robert Park, a physicist and spokesman for the American Physical Society, thinks the systems could hit such cooperative targets eventually, though "there's still a lot of work to do." In the real world, however, targets take evasive action and are masked by decoys, and "then it becomes hopeless again," says Park.

Rather than questioning the underlying falsehoods of missile defense, the press is content to ventilate at length Dole and Clinton's differences on tactical questions of timing and budget. Small wonder, then, that many Americans apparently believe we already have a functioning missile defense system. Why not? For years, we've seen fancy graphics on television and in newspapers showing incoming missiles being intercepted and destroyed. And the media was only too happy to pass along Pentagon claims during the Gulf War about the stunning success of Patriot missiles against Saddam Hussein's SCUDs. In reality, according to Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at MIT who has analyzed official videos of the war against Iraq, "The Patriots were almost certainly 0 for 44 against SCUDs."

The few news organizations that have suggested Desert Storm's anti-missile defenses were flawed have suffered some consequences. When PBS's "Frontline" mentioned the Patriot's failures during an otherwise respectful broadcast in January reviewing the war, Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Patriot (and a donor to WGBH, the parent station of "Frontline") mounted a "very aggressive" complaint campaign, says senior producer Michael Sullivan. Boston Globe reporter Dan Goulden says Raytheon threatened his paper with a lawsuit for reporting Postol's findings.

Whether you call it Star Wars or missile defense, it has been a fabulously lucrative mirage for the corporate beneficiaries of the Pentagon's lavish welfare program. It is also a politically expedient mirage for would-be presidents like Dole (who has to pass the far right's litmus test on the issue) and Clinton (who needs the electoral votes of California, where much Star Wars money is spent). Of course, the role of the press should be to expose such illusions not contribute to them. But that is hard to do when one's habits of mind and ultimate loyalties lie with those inside, not outside, the Washington
palace walls.

Quote of the day

What's love got to do with it?

"The gay and lesbian community is marching down the wrong path and running a disastrous course. We don't have public support. We don't even have unanimity within the gay and lesbian community. We've got to get to A and B before we can get to E."

-- Keith O. Boykin, executive director of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, on the push by other gay organizations to defeat the Defense of Marriage Act which would deny Federal government recognition of same-sex marriages. (From "Some Gay Rights Advocates Question Effort to Defend Same-Sex Marriage," in Friday's New York Times)


By Mark Hertsgaard

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