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Stars Wars: Price of Admission, 70 Billion Dollars


You all know what MAD means. We're talking about "making a difference". Right?

Rewind to about 1972, when MAD had another meaning. The USSR (the former union of the Soviet states) and the US has just signed a treaty called the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). The agreement stated that neither country would build any nation-wide missile defense system. The theory was that if the world's two super-powers each had a massive store of nuclear missiles, and if either country (or both) launched these powerful weapons, there would be so much destruction that it would mean the end for both countries. This idea became known as 'Mutual Assured Destruction'. In other words, it was no good for anybody.

If we wind back the clock even more, we can see the beginnings of the United States' long-range missile defense system. In the 1960s and 70s, the US was working on a type of missile that would disable an enemy missile, sent from a long distance away (up to thousands of miles). These weapons would meet the incoming enemy missiles in mid-air, and blow them up. Well, actually, they both blow up at this point. But since then, many nations, especially the US, have been developing, and stockpiling, these powerful devices.

Skip ahead a few years, to 1983, nine years after the ABM was signed. President Reagan and the US Joint Chiefs-of-Staff announced their new plan for national defense- the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This initiative proposed a comprehensive system of land-, air- and space-based weapons that would create a shield against nuclear attacks. Not only did this plan violate the ABM, it seemed like an expensive project destined for failure.

The plan did turn out to be a failure. Two years later, the Office of Technology Assessment concluded that the SDI could not guarantee the survival of the US if attacked by nuclear weapons. The office also noted developing a ballistic missile defense system might have a bad effect on future arms control negotiations. The so-called shield was never developed.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the US looked at its defense system and military spending again. President Bush had a program called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS). This system was intended to protect US troops deployed to various parts of the world. It was tested in the Persian Gulf War, when Patriot missiles were sent to destroy the Iraqi SCUD missiles. The project was hailed as a great success, when Bush announced that 41 out of the 42 SCUD missiles deployed were destroyed. But it was later discovered that only four SCUD missiles had been intercepted and destroyed. The miracle missile was another bust.

The next year, Bill Clinton was elected president; and it was time again to look carefully at two issues: the effectiveness of these costly (but destructive) weapons, and the huge amount of money being spent on them. Since 1987, we had been spending close to 30 million dollars per year on the SDI weapons alone! Add to that all of the other military spending- this is serious cash for experimenting with deadly toys. In 1992, Clinton pledged to reduce SDI spending. A year later, the secretary of defense renamed SDI Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and focused the program on protecting US troops overseas.

Since the Reagan years, and throughout the Clinton administration, two problems continued to plague the BMD: first, there are the exorbitant costs of the weapons. In 1995, the Congressional Research Service revealed the US spent a total of $70.7 billion on missile defense from 1984 to 1994. In this ten-year period, not one working system was developed. And this is the second problem- in spite of all the money spent, the US hasn't gotten anywhere with these weapons. Tests show that these weapons range from 13% effective to 18% effective, depending on the type of missile. What would you say if you got a 13% on your next math test? The scientists, engineers, military men, and even politicians all agree: we don't have a viable protection system against ballistic missiles. If they launch, we get- you got it- Mutual Assured Destruction. Kind of makes you mad, doesn't it?

There are more problems, too; ones easy for the average citizen to spot. Say that the US has a missile defense system that will protect us against an attack of 4000 incoming missiles. What stops the nation launching the missiles from building another 1000 missiles and overcoming our defenses? Or even another 100 missiles? These things are big, powerful, and deadly. I don't want any of them being intercepted in the sky above my backyard, because I don't want any of them in the air in the first place.

Another question that the average person might (or should) raise is the question of chemical warfare. Many nations are currently developing chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. Missiles can't protect against those.

While the US was busy with its own weapons, the rest of the world was developing them as well. Russia still has weapons left over from the days of the Soviets, some of which the Russian government currently cannot locate. China, France, and Great Britain have the missiles. North Korea and Iraq are developing them as you read this.

So, what do we have? A world where unreliable nuclear weapons are stockpiled; and the world's wealthiest country continues to spend billions on these things while people go hungry or sleep in the streets. Think for a minute about another way: what if, over the last ten years, the US had spent 70 billion dollars working on the quality of the average child's life? Or even half that? The rich and powerful nations of the world have spent a huge amount of money and time, and even human lives, working on weapons that would only serve to destroy us all. In the meantime, programs and efforts to improve the quality of life for these same people have received only a fraction of the time and money. What could happen if the US alone decided to spend that money on food, shelter and education? And more importantly, what would happen if the US made those things more important than nuclear missiles? It seems clear that investing in quality of life, and in peaceful unions with other nations, would bring about more stability. (Note that the development of weapons and peaceful unions are mutually exclusive.)

What can you do about it? Awareness is crucial, according to the folks who run the site: http://www.geocities.com/vafb_m19 . In the 1980s, a nonviolent protest was staged at the Earth's largest coral atoll, Kwajalein, in the South Pacific. Kwajalein had been seized by the Pentagon for nuclear weapon target practice. Taking this cue, there will be a mass nonviolent occupation of the coastline along Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The protest will be an event that calls the world's attention to the problem. It's key to involve people in the fight, but first they must know what's going on. They must know that the idea of a missile defense system is a farce, and that this indicates a bigger problem. It's a problem of skewed priorities, of stockpilied killer weapons, and of human suffering.

You can use the following links for a more in-depth look at the strategies of the United States regarding missile defense:

Balistic Missile Program Status Update

Reduce Spending On Missile Defense ("Star Wars")

The Persistence of the Missile Defense Illusion

Issue Brief: Ballistic Missile Defense

The US National Missile Defense Program: Vital Shield or Modern Day Maginot Line?


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Up, up and away in an airplane museum in Berlin
Stephanie - When the arms race got real and almost deadly!
Irene - A big, bad bully - and it's not who you think it is!
Rebecca - Memories from the forgotten war in Korea
Team - How would you like to buy some furniture, or maybe Guatemala?