by Ivan Eland
In the 30 years, since President Ronald Reagan created his expensive pie-in-the-sky Strategic Defense Initiative—quickly and appropriately named “Star Wars” by critics and journalists alike—the United States has spent a whopping $250 billion on trying to shoot down fast intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as those that might someday be fielded by Iran and North Korea. This government effort has been a boondoggle, but then huge costs and poor performance rarely cause any government program to be terminated—evidence of this effect is exhibited by the continued flow of money to the project despite three decades of failure.
Any government program no matter how ridiculous, once established, develops constituency groups that then come to feel entitled to the benefits of the effort. In this case, huge defense contractors and smaller subcontracting companies pressure their members of Congress to keep the money flowing, no matter what the effectiveness of the missile defense program has been. And in the case of missile defense, it’s even worse. Hawkish Republicans guard the legacy of their nearly canonized “Gipper” by slathering the program with plenty of money. Of course, many at the Pentagon outside the missile defense office would like to cut or eliminate the program and use the money for what they consider more legitimate defense needs.
Violating good procurement practices, poorly designed missile interceptors were deployed before being thoroughly tested. And what tests have been done have been rigged to give the missile interceptor a better chance of hitting the incoming missile. Even so, according to press reports, missile interceptors of the ground-based mid-course intercept system have failed in eight of 16 tests against slower intermediate-range missiles (long-range intercontinental missiles are even faster and harder to hit), with the last three tests ending in failure. Studies by experts, both inside and outside the Pentagon, have questioned whether the system can ever be reliable or is worth its huge cost.
Even if the system’s reliability is eventually increased, however, it still may not be worth the cost. The problem with missile defense is that it has always been more expensive than building the offensive missiles the system is designed to counter. Although Reagan lovers have weaved the tale that Star Wars cowed the Soviets and won the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader during the later years of the Reagan administration, said that Star Wars really didn’t worry him because he could build more offensive missiles faster and more cheaply than the United States could build defenses.
Thus, the Star Wars system’s original grandiose goal of defending against Soviet missiles had to be scaled back—there were just too many of them. So the program morphed into a much more modest missile defense system against poorer rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea. Perhaps the system could knock down a few Wile E. Coyote-style missiles that these countries could muster up.
But as the previously cited test results have shown, reliable technology to achieve even this modest goal is likely to be elusive. And it is not needed anyway. Ever since World War II, the United States has very effectively relied on its huge offensive nuclear arsenal to deter other nations from attacking the United States with nuclear or conventional weapons. Smaller countries than Russia or China, such as Iran or North Korea, which could have their home address entirely wiped off the map with a fraction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, have an even bigger incentive to avoid launching any future intercontinental missiles at the United States. So the bottom line is that 30 years of effort and cost on missile defense wasn’t needed anyway, given the fact that the U.S. offensive nuclear deterrent—the most powerful in the world—seems to work just fine.
Undeterred by such logic, and contradicting their rhetorical bombast against wasteful government spending, hawkish Republicans remain without shame about missile defense’s enormous costs and frequent failures. In fact, they want to spend additional billions on missile defense, adding tests, more unreliable interceptors on the west coast, and an entirely new missile defense installation on the east coast!
Instead, this white elephant should be killed before even more money is needlessly squandered at a time of huge federal budget deficits and a $17 trillion national debt.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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