Return of the Death Star?

by the Cherub Study Group*
July 31, 1998

EVANSTON, IL - Imagine a shootout at the OK Corral. One gunslinger draws a gun and pulls the trigger, sending a bullet speeding toward his arch-enemy standing at the other end of the corral. From a nearby rooftop, a third maverick tries to save his friend by firing his own gun to intercept the enemy bullet in mid-flight. Can a bullet hit a bullet? For the rooftop maverick, the answer to this question must be no. Human reflexes are just too slow. For lifetime bureaucrats who administer the nation's missile defense program, the answer is an emphatic yes. It is technically possible to build an effective interceptor that can head off enemy missiles by "hitting a bullet with a bullet," Pentagon officials say. These visionaries promise that as long as the budget appropriations keep rolling in to support expensive research, a reliable shield against ballistic missiles will become a reality in the near future.

After nearly $50 billion in spending on Star Wars since 1983, you might think that success in this engineering feat would be just around the corner. A cursory glance at missile defense testing data, however, reveals a dismal technical record of failure.

Things have gotten so bad that the Clinton Administration's favorite missile defense system just failed its fifth straight test in the desert. This series of setbacks comes on the heels of the spectacular but unsuccessful attempt to use missile defense in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as well as a slew of other dead-end junk science projects financed out of the missile defense budget in the mid-1980's.

So why does Congress keep forking over more money for missile defense, a military program that has established an unparalleled record for futility? In large part, missile defense programs have been kept afloat by deceptive campaigns to distort test results and squash public criticism through strategic deception, abuse of the classification system, and intimidation.

Consider the case of the performance of the Patriot missile defense system in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. During the war, the Pentagon and CNN worked overtime to convince TV viewers that Patriot was doing an uncanny job of "Scudbusting," as President Bush called it. Following the war, military contractors cashed in on this perception by landing billions of dollars of appropriation jackpots for new missile defense projects. Unfortunately for American taxpayers, those appropriations were made by Congress before it was discovered that Patriot's performance in the Gulf War was not nearly as successful as originally believed.

Perhaps the ultimate irony of the Star Wars program is that while the technology has failed miserably to provide defense against enemy missile attack, some day, the same technology might be used as an offensive weapon. In George Lucas' blockbuster movie +Star Wars+, Princess Leia's planet was targeted for destruction by the evil Death Star. +Star Wars+ fans will recall that the Death Star was Darth Vader's orbiting military satellite that had the capability to vaporize enemies using superbright lasers. Although the Star Wars system currently being developed by the Clinton administration might not be able to successfully intercept incoming enemy missiles, it may still work as an offensive Death Star if it is eventually deployed. As Dr. Robert Bowman argues, this offensive capability could be used to destroy entire cities using space-based lasers.

The idea of missile defense has a comforting appeal. Developing a protective shield that could provide shelter in a dangerous world should be a top military priority, missile defense advocates say.

However, 16 years of engineering failure suggests that this project may be a wild goose chase, with no end in sight. If lawmakers continue to think that throwing billions of more research dollars into the program will eventually produce the capability to "hit a bullet with a bullet," they may end up with a rude surprise. Some day, gullible lawmakers may wake up to realize that what they have actually created is not an effective defensive system, but instead a lethal new offensive version of Star Wars, the Death Star.

* Members of the Cherub Study Group include Clint Burr, Melissa Gainey, Gordon Mitchell , Theo Schweitz, David Summers, Tony Todero, Hester Tsui, Barbara Tunkis, and Adamy Wyatt. The Study Group conducted its research as part of the NHSI Workshop on U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Russia. Hosted by Northwestern University from July - August, 1998, this workshop was designed to provide a forum for college faculty and high school students to collaboratively research and debate contemporary issues in international relations.