Star Wars Redux

President Obama’s recent decision to scrap the Bush administration’s anti-ballistic missile program is being met with euphoria in the political and journalistic communities in Washington.  Anti-ballistic missile programs have been a staple of U.S. politics since the Reagan administration introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars” program in 1983, promising to create a system that could shoot down nuclear missiles launched by enemy states.  The program was never technologically feasible, although it proved an incredible boondoggle for U.S. taxpayers.  The original plan was conceptualized through creation of anti-ballistic missiles – known as “Brilliant Pebbles” that would be directed by a “Brilliant Eyes” targeting system that would initiate a strike on nuclear missiles launched against the U.S. and its allies.  The Brilliant Pebbles program was cancelled in 1994, but the U.S. commitment to a “missile shield” system continued under Clinton, George W. Bush, and is now moving forward under Obama.


Obama announced the termination of the Bush administration’s missile shield plan, which included the placement of defenses against long-range missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic.  Obama’s plan will redirect resources for creating a ship-based (and later land-based) system, allegedly intended to defend against Iranian short and medium range missiles that might be launched against Israel.


Critical readers will recognize the media’s reporting on the need to “defend” against Iranian nuclear aggression for the sham it is.  The failure of U.S. and international intelligence agencies to uncover any evidence that Iran is violating the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty or developing nuclear weapons is well documented, although this didn’t stop the New York Times from speculating this month that “Iran Could Expedite [a] Nuclear Bomb” and that “there is little doubt inside the U.S. government that Iran’s ultimate goal is to create a weapons capability” (Sanger, 9/9/09).  NY Times’ reporting on Obama’s new missile shield stresses the need to guard against the “more imminent threat: Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles” (Sanger/Broad, 9/17/09).


Reporting on Israel’s own efforts to counter the Iranian “threat” also receive sympathetic attention from politicians and journalists.  The Washington Post reports this month that “Israel is steadily assembling one of the world’s most advanced missile defense systems, a multi-layered collection of weapons meant to guard against a variety of threats.”  The initiative, financed by the U.S., is framed by the Post as a means of defusing an Iranian threat.  The paper quotes Uzi Rubin, a defense consultant who worked on the Israeli shield in the 1990s, who promises that Iran “now cannot be assured of a successful first strike against Israel” (Schneider, 9/19/09).


Any objections to U.S. missile shield development in Washington are not moral, but rather pragmatic.  No one criticizes these “missile shields” as fitting within a larger framework that enables U.S. and Israeli aggression; rather, the missile shield is innocently framed by the Times and Post as defending the U.S., Israel, and Western Europe (Sanger/Broad, 9/17/09, and Shear/Tyson, 9/18/09).  The NY Times dismisses Bush’s missile shield as a “technological flop,” although Reagan’s “Star Wars” is commended for helping to “nudge the Soviets toward agreements that sharply reduced nuclear arsenals” (Sanger/Broad, 9/17/09).  Editorially, the Times’ and Post’s positions mirror their reporting.  The Times’ editors laud Obama’s “sound strategic decision, scrapping former President Bush’s technologically dubious plan” to build a missile shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic, since “Mr. Bush’s plan was flawed by technology [that] was nowhere near ready.”  The new Obama plan, by contrast, is “less ambitious – but more feasible” (“Missile Sense,” 9/18/09).  The Post’s editors conclude that Obama’s plan will “provide better protection more quickly from the threat of Iranian missiles,” although the American public is also warned not to discount the danger posed by Russia’s “neo-imperialism” and its “aggressive stance toward Georgia, Ukraine, and other neighbors that it claims should be subject to its dominion” (“Missile Strike,” 9/18/09).


There are always counter-narratives to the official stances expressed at the White House press meetings and in the halls of the Capitol building.  In this case, one of the major counter-narratives questions whether a missile shield is really “defensive” at all, or simply one more weapon to be used by the United States’ in its offensive and imperialist grand strategy.  Unsurprisingly, this view won’t get any serious attention in mainstream reporting and editorials, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important to discuss.


Nuclear proliferation experts, intelligence officials, scientists, and critical academics have long warned about the dangers of the promises that missile shields are defensive.  A classified U.S. National Intelligence Estimate from 2000 titled “Foreign Responses to U.S. National Missile Defense Deployment” is a case in point.  The assessment warned that the deployment of a U.S. missile shield may encourage China to increase its development of nuclear weapons by a factor of ten.  This counter-response could then cause Russia to expand its reliance on multiple-warhead ballistic missiles.  Assessments from the Rand Corporation provide similar conclusions.  One 1985 report, “The Strategic Defense Initiative and European Security,” addresses missile shield critics “who generally questioned the value of the SDI [a.k.a. Star Wars],” and who “believe that strategic defenses have the potential to undermine deterrence because they could…trigger a Soviet offensive and defensive buildup and start a chain of events that would never have occurred without the U.S. provocation.”  The report adds a much neglected point to recent debate on Obama’s missile shield: while touted as defensive posturing, missile shield advances may actually encourage further proliferation by countries set on neutralizing any progress toward deflection of nuclear attacks. 


Physicist Hans Bethe warns that an effective missile shield is unachievable, since it would be extremely costly, difficult to construct, and much simpler to destroy.  This reality was driven home by a 2007 missile strike by the Chinese government against an American satellite.  The attack demonstrated that interceptor satellite programs such as “Brilliant Eyes” (discussed above) may be relatively easy to disrupt or destroy in light of current missile technology.  Cambridge University Professor Robert Hinde concludes that, even at its most efficient, “ballistic missile defense is not 100 percent effective; a small proportion of the offensive missiles will always get through.”  Even in the case that such a system was used as an offensive weapon, following a U.S. nuclear first strike (with the missile shield used to defend against a nuclear counter-response), 100 percent efficiency can never be guaranteed.  Such a strategic line of thinking, furthermore, is not only impractical, it is criminally negligent.


There is significant evidence to suggest that U.S. officials envision the development of a missile shield to be used as an offensive, rather than a defensive weapon.  In his book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, Chalmers Johnson emphasizes that U.S. officials traditionally situate their development of weapons in space in terms of their offensive capabilities.  As early as 1957, General Thomas D. White envisioned that “the capability to control space will likewise possess the capability to exert control of the surface of the Earth.”  Johnson also cites Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (under George W. Bush), who explains that “space offers attractive options not only for missile defense but for a broad range of interrelated civil and military missions.”  These statements, Johnson concludes, are evidence of “America’s imperial project to dominate the space surrounding our planet.”


The U.S. government’s own strategic planning documents appear to vindicate Johnson.  The Department of Defense’s “Joint Vision 2020” report, for example, stresses the need to militarily achieve “full-spectrum dominance” in global affairs, ensured through protecting the “freedom to act in all domains – space, sea, land, air, and information.”  As a program operating under the Department of Defense, the SDI-Star Wars program logically falls within the realm of a space-based effort to assist the DOD in achieving its goal of full spectrum global dominance. 


President Obama’s new ballistic missile plan continues to make use of satellite technology to curtail the alleged missile threats.  The program, then, is very much in line with earlier attempts to weaponize space, and efforts to achieve full spectrum dominance over official enemies of state.  Discussion of “missile defense” in Washington fails to concede the aggressive aspects of missile shield technology, but that doesn’t mean that the American public should be restrained by such propaganda.  We should recognize belligerent posturing against Iran for what it is: a hypocritical attempt by two nuclear powers to bully a non-nuclear state that resides in an oil rich region that both powers seek to dominate by force.




Anthony DiMaggio teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and When Media Goes to War (February 2010).  He can be reached at: adimagg@ilstu.edu

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