Thursday, September 24, 2009

Obama's Star Wars Lite - at least it's not as unrealistic

I keep calling the Star Wars/national missile defense (NMD) program the biggest boondoggle project in the history of humanity. There may be other worthy (?!?) candidates for that distinction. Maybe in inflation-adjusted terms, some gaudy temple to Zeus that the Romans build or something like that may be a competitor.

But I'm not kidding about Star Wars being a horrible boondoggle. David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund have a new article at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about the Technical flaws in the Obama missile defense plan 09/23/09. They approve Obama's decision to scale back the defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. And in explaining why, they remind us how much of a welfare program for defense contractors the Star Wars program has been:

There certainly was no technical justification for deploying the Bush administration's planned system, which would have placed ground-based interceptors in Poland and a large radar in the Czech Republic. The planned interceptors were to be modified two-stage versions of the three-stage interceptors currently fielded in Alaska and California as part of the ground-based missile defense intended to protect the United States against long-range missile attacks. But the two-stage interceptors haven't had any flight tests, and the three-stage versions haven't undergone rigorous, realistic flight-testing. Thus far, the tests have been highly scripted and haven't included realistic countermeasures or other complications that the system would expect to face in a real-world attack. Both versions of the interceptors are designed to intercept missiles in the vacuum of space, where decoys and other countermeasures would be highly effective. [my emphasis]
Rummy even approved a new process of project development, where a major weapons system could be moved to the next stage of development without ever having been proved functional in the previous stage. Star Wars was always a boondoggle. Rummy turned it into a full-blown Predator State boondoggle.

Obama's 2.0 version is scaled back. And that's a great thing. As long as we remember that a scaled-back boondoggle is still a boondoggle. The fatal flaw in the Star Wars concept has always been that its incredibly expense to build the system. And it can only be effective if there's an extremely high likelihood that it would effectively intercept 100% of incoming nuclear missiles. On the other hand, evasive methods to reduce the Star Wars defenses to considerably less than 100% effectiveness are both technologically far less challenging and extremely less expensive.

While thinking of Star Wars in that kind of scenario is clearly necessary, it shouldn't distract us from the fact that after over two decades of development, the effectiveness of the missiles that are planned to be deployed, as Wright and Gronlund describe in the quote above, haven't even demonstrated a reliable 1% effectiveness rate!

But Obama's 2.0 version isn't any more reliable:

So instead, the Obama administration is planning to deploy in Europe the existing ship-based Aegis defense system, which is designed to intercept short- and intermediate-range missiles with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers. According to the plan, the United States will develop and field interceptors against longer-range missiles in the future. ...

President Obama has repeatedly stated that missile defense systems must be "proven" before they are deployed. And as he stated last week, he considers the Aegis interceptors proven. However, his criteria for a "proven system" is disappointingly weak: While the Aegis interceptor has done well in recent tests, it hasn't been tested against countermeasures or under real-world conditions. Such tests are needed before the system can be considered to be effective. [my emphasis]
The entire Star Wars program is a tremendously expensive symbol of the degree to which our economy and political culture during the decades of the Cold War - which has continued as the Long War (though the Pentagon doesn't highlight that phrase any more) - has developed deep-seated, genuinely militarist aspects. Obama's decision to begin scaling back Star Wars to a less extravagant boondoggle is a step in the right direction.

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