Star Wars in the Land of Oz

TIRED of reading about the Star Wars program? Me too. But we'd better pay attention to this story.The administration wants $120 billion more to realize its plans to encircle the globe with 1,000 weapons satellites over the next 15 years. President Bush is threatening to veto the entire defense bill if he doesn't get another $5 billion installment this year. This is the largest single weapons request in the budget and Mr. Bush wants even more the year after. While most knowledgeable scientists and military strategists have walked away from this program, Bush and a band of conservative true believers push on. We are not talking about a reasonable research program. After all, the House of Representatives just approved $2.6 billion for research. We are not talking about developing our defenses against short-range missiles like the Scuds of the Gulf war. The House just doubled last year's budget and voted more than $800 million for that work. No, what the hard-core right wants and the president supports is to spend $6 billion to $7 billion a year for the next 15 years to build and orbit a whole new type of weaponry: at least 1,000 satellites with interceptor rockets aboard; scores of elaborate sensor satellites; hundreds of anti-missile missiles scattered in sites around the country; dozens of new radar installations. The only comparable program in US defense history, according to General Accounting Office (GAO) testimony, was the development and deployment of all our offensive strategic nuclear missiles, bombers, and submarines. With the Soviet threat declining and our national debt increasing, Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) officials demand annual budgets larger than any ever granted to a weapons program. What exactly has the country gotten for the $24 billion SDI has consumed to date? Simply asking this question, as I did in a recent congressional hearing, plunges us into a fairy tale world of responses. As in the Land of Oz, we are angrily warned not to pay attention to what's behind the curtain. The wizards don't want to talk about the past, only about the wonders they promise for the future. Like the Emperor's new clothes, no one wants to admit that there's nothing really there. Not the president, not the officials in charge, not the contractors, not even most members of Congress. Over the past eight years, the administration has been remarkably successful in convincing Congress to give it billions for SDI. But the program has proved remarkably unsuccessful in producing much of anything. SDI has pulled a reverse Rumpelstiltskin - it has spun gold into straw. Money was poured into these exotic weapons projects that were later abandoned: * $1 billion for the Free Electron Laser. * $1 billion for the Boost Surveillance and Tracking Satellite. * $720 million for the Space-based Chemical Laser. * $700 million for the Neutral Particle Beam. * $366 million for the Airborne Optical Aircraft. The list goes on. Scattered around the country are dozens of test facilities, half-completed projects, and hundreds of reports. The GAO concludes that most of the $24 billion spent so far may have been wasted because of unrealistic budget requests, poor planning, and the rush to try to field something, anything. And the new $120 billion system? Unfortunately, it is another fairy tale. It is basically what the Air Force proposed over 30 years ago - a system called Ballistic Missile Boost Intercept (BAMBI). BAMBI was envisioned as "a system in the form of hundreds of satellites circling the globe, in which each one is equipped with many small missiles with an infrared homing device...." BAMBI was put to sleep in 1962. The new system promises to be a little smaller, a little faster, but fundamentally the same. Nor is there a goose laying golden eggs to pay for this fantasy. Just a mountain of debt and a small group of leaders with their heads in the clouds.

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