Everybody loves the White House’s tongue-in-cheek response to the petition demanding it build a Death Star—it’s clever, endearingly nerdy, and comes replete with a couple bona fide lols.
But the avalanche of blog posts that fell forth in the wake of the official response failed to mention one unfortunate and obvious parallel: that Obama actually continues to fund Star Wars, the bloated and mostly useless multibillion dollar missile defense system that’s been hovering around in one form or another since the Reagan administration. While the administration jests that it won’t sponsor the Death Star in the interest of keeping the budget under control, it continues to pump billions into a system that experts say aims to “hit bullets with bullets”—and often misses.
The original ‘Star Wars’ weapons program, of course, was Ronald Reagan’s infamous Strategic Defense Initiative, which aimed to build a satellite-regulated “missile shield” that could automatically dismantle incoming nuclear projectiles. It was launched after his equally infamous 1983 speech testifying to the superior nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union.
In that speech, Reagan warned that the Russians had surpassed U.S. missile technologies, leaving us vulnerable to nuclear strike. (Reagan was advised and encouraged by Edward Teller, who had developed the hydrogen bomb, and loved outlandish technological ideas.) But he never truly linked his plans to Lucas’s films, which were basically the equivalent of Beatles of the era. That honor goes to Edward Kennedy, who aimed to criticize Reagan by suggesting the concept of building a missile shield in space better belonged to science fiction.
An early overview of how SDI would work.
History Today’s Peter Kramer explains:
when Senator Edward Kennedy first attached the `Star Wars' label to Reagan's vision in comments made on the floor of the Senate the day after the speech, it was to accuse the President of `misleading Red Scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes'. Kennedy's comments were meant to point out the fantastic nature of Reagan's missile defence programme and the real dangers of his escalation of the arms race into space. Yet, despite these critical intentions, the `Star Wars' label was so evocative and ambivalent that it was immediately embraced by some of Reagan's supporters, and henceforth the programme, which did not acquire its official - and rather uninspiring title Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) until the spring of 1984, was universally known as `Star Wars'.
Indeed, the project proved expensive and infeasible, though missile defense silos were nonetheless constructed and some tests with laser-missile targeting carried out.
No missiles were ever fired, however, and the Soviet bloc crumbled and the Cold War ended. But instead of drying up, the SDI just shifted purviews and changed focus over the years and through multiple presidencies: going strong through Reagan, petering out during Bush 1, getting downsized and transformed into the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization under Bill Clinton, and eventually resuscitated by George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. It was then that Bush allocated billions in funding to a new bureau, the Missile Defense Agency, which continues to receive billions every year to maintain and enhance our never-used missile silos.
An artist's rendering of a space-based "railgun," a proposed SDI weapon that would shoot "smart" projectiles at incoming missiles.
So today, we’ve got a multi-billion dollar missile defense system—altogether, it’s believed that well over $100 billion has been spent on the program, according to the Fiscal Times. $80 billion of that was in the last decade alone. Now, it’s not quite $850 quadrillion, but still—that’s a lot of cash down the tubes for a system that experts say might not even be effective. See, the kicker is that nobody really knows whether Star Wars would work or not. According to a 2011 report in Bloomberg, which detailed the most recent round of defense contract approvals for the program, there’s plenty of reason for skepticism:
No one knows whether the $35 billion program would work. It has never been tested under conditions simulating a real attack by an intercontinental ballistic missile deploying sophisticated decoys and countermeasures. The system has flunked 7 of 15 more limited trials, yet remains exempted from normal Pentagon oversight and so far has been spared the cuts Congress is demanding in other areas of federal spending.
Indeed. Just last year, the Missile Defense Agency requested $8 billion for its annual operating budget. For a program whose success rate in test runs is less than 50%.
But at least Obama scrapped the more outlandish vestiges of the system—the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a system designed to halt approaching ballistic missiles midflight. Bush’s plan to build a missile shield around Europe, sometimes dubbed Star Wars II, or son of Star Wars, was too costly and unrealistic.
So Obama scrapped it in 2009. The secretary of defense killed $6 billion in funding for the project over the protests of Republicans, and that was that. The dream of thwarting our enemies from space was snuffed out like Alderan.
Raytheon's Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) in the lab.
So what do we still have? Too much. The shield program, formally called the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense program (GMB), is operated by Boeing. If it were to work correctly, American satellites would “identify the hot plume of an enemy missile within seconds of launch, alert radar installations and relay tracking data to kill vehicles ready to intercept the incoming warhead about 200 miles (322 kilometers) in space.”
“Kill vehicles,” hm? Pray tell what we've got to send humming through missile-free skies? Well, the one currently in use is built by Raytheon, and it’s worth $30 million dollars. It’s a 120 lb spacecraft that’s just about four feet long.
Reports Bloomberg: “It looks like a telescope mounted on a pack of propane gas cylinders and is supposed to be able to pick out a target from decoys and debris and smash into it while flying at a combined closing speed of 6.2 miles a second. It has no explosive -- the collision alone would do the damage."
It has also failed to work in two of the trials it’s been subjected to. Meanwhile the underground silos that house on-ground anti-missile rockets are moldy and home to leaking pipes. Billions must be spent to keep them in working condition—should they actually work when and if they’re ever needed.
There are plenty of boondoggles in our nation’s military history; but none quite so persistent and literally useless as the Star Wars missile defense program. Where else have we devoted $100 billion to technology that has literally never been put to use, and has never been proven to be effective even if it were? Come to think of it, we’ve gotten about as good a return on investment on Star Wars as the Empire got on its Death Star.