Perhaps it is fitting that the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" speech falls on Easter Sunday. After all, many had believed Reagan's grand plan for a system that would render Moscow's nuclear-tipped missiles "impotent and obsolete" died along with the Soviet Union. But "Star Wars" has been resurrected, and has been standing guard over America's skies since 2004. But the more than $120 billion spent over 25 years to build the "Star Wars" missile shield has not left the U.S. less vulnerable to attack some would argue that it has done exactly the opposite, by diverting resources away from dealing with more urgent and plausible threats.
Those who fear a missile strike on the American mainland from North Korea or Iran not that either is anywhere close to achieving such capability the investment in a missile shield, even one whose efficacy is far from clearly established, may seem worthwhile. To those who believe the more salient and insidious threats are those of the type we experienced on 9/11, this shield against a handful of rogue missiles represents an unfortunate diversion of funds that could be used far more effectively to defend the U.S.
The growing consensus among national-security professionals is that a deadly weapon targeting the U.S. is far more likely to be delivered hidden in a shipping container than in the warhead of an intercontinental ballistic missile. But the $10 billion a year the Pentagon devotes to missile defenses is almost twice the amount the U.S. spends on defending the nation's borders and ports from smuggled weapons.
The nation "continues to assign a higher priority to programs designed to confront conventional military threats, such as ballistic missiles," says terror expert Stephen Flynn, "than [to] unconventional threats, such as a weapon of mass destruction smuggled into the United States by a ship, train, truck or even private jet." The same logic led the country to spend 20 times more, last year, on protecting military bases than on safeguarding the infrastructure of U.S. cities. "We essentially are hardening military bases," Flynn told Congress recently, "and making civilian assets more attractive, softer targets for our adversaries."
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, working out of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, has military officers peering at computer screens 24/7, looking for telltale signs of missile launches. An array of satellites and a huge floating radar in the Pacific are linked through those officers to ground-based missiles in Alaska and California and interceptor missiles aboard Navy warships. Since 2001, the Pentagon has shot down 34 out of 42 test missiles it has targeted. Critics contend the tests don't replicate real-world conditions, because the timing and trajectory of the target "incoming" missiles are known beforehand to those trying to shoot them down. These test "attacking" missiles also don't deploy accompanying decoys designed to confuse any interceptors. Pentagon officials say today's system is needed because rogue states might develop their missiles in secret, and fire them at the U.S. without testing. Each of those questionable assumptions makes it less likely that the missiles would work, but missile-defense boosters say that risk can't be ignored.
Vice President Dick Cheney heralded the program's 25th anniversary and the continuing need for it at a gathering hosted by the Heritage Foundation In Georgetown's Four Seasons hotel on March 11. "In 1972, nine countries had ballistic missiles," he said. "Today, it is at least 27, and that includes hostile regimes that oppress their own people, seek to intimidate and dominate their neighbors, and actively support terrorist groups."
But Joseph Cirincione, a missile-defense expert recently named president of the pro-disarmament Ploughshares Fund, told Congress a week earlier that the missile threat faced by the U.S. actually has declined in recent decades. Two-thirds of the nations cited by Cheney "have only short-range ballistic missiles with ranges under 1,000 kilometers basically Scuds. This is often ignored when officials or experts cite the 30 countries with ballistic missile capability." The long-range missiles threatening the U.S. have shrunk by 71% over the past 20 years, he said, and are based in Russia and China. Five nations have developed medium-range missiles over the same period China, India, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan.
Stephen Hildreth, an expert in missile defense for the Congressional Research Service, addressing the same hearing of the House government reform committee's national-security panel, emphasized the epic technological challenge involved in building a nuclear-tipped, ocean-spanning missile. In the past half-century, only five nations the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia have managed to successfully develop, and then integrate, the requisite propulsion, guidance, reentry and warhead systems. "The long history of ICBMs demonstrates that such success took considerable resources in time, funding, knowledge, infrastructure, organization and national commitment," Hildreth said. "It's this aspect of it that, I think, is lacking in so many of the discussions about ICBM threats to the country today."
Somewhere above, Ronald Reagan may be nodding, and brightening the heavens with his genial smile. "Free people must voluntarily, through open debate and democratic means, meet the challenge that totalitarians pose by compulsion," he said in that speech 25 years ago. He was speaking of the Soviets. But he just as easily could be speaking today of the "Star Wars" boosters who have made building the missile-defense system into a memorial for President Reagan, regardless of the changes in the real threats facing the nation since he spoke those words.