My Thermonuclear Coloring Book

When I heard about last week's ostensibly successful test of the missile defense shield, I thought back forty-five years to the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when we feared ourselves defenseless from Russian nuclear rockets just a hundred miles offshore.

Then I recalled a much more recent event in May 2003.

The government held a Public Service Recognition Week on the Mall in Washington. A hundred or so Federal agencies put up booths and displays, extolling their work and honoring their employees' contributions to America.

One of those represented was the Missile Defense Agency. At their exhibit, the MDA handed out a document that to me has come to symbolize everything twisted and wacky, to use the technical phrase, about the Bush administration's obsession with the "Star Wars" anti-missile system.

It was a coloring book.

I'm not making this up. The mini opus began with a simple portrait of Ronald Reagan, who "led U.S. efforts to develop missile defenses." Presumably, the kiddies could dig into the big Crayola box (the one with the built-in sharpener) for a crayon that approximated Reagan's hair color, a shade the late, great Pete Lisagor of the late, great Chicago Daily News once described in my presence as "prematurely orange."

But then it got complicated, with dense pictures depicting interceptor missiles, a "ground-based midcourse defense" and an "exoatmospheric kill vehicle." Hard enough to say, much less color.

Or to build. And that's a big part of the problem. The missile defense systems the government desires are hugely expensive and intricate, will take decades to build -- actually, once you're fully committed, there's no real end to building such systems, ever -- and remain largely untried and untested.

Tests like last week's, which saw a Boeing intercontinental missile interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California destroy a target missile warhead launched from Kodiak, Alaska, only cover certain aspects of the system, with dubious results. For one thing, they knew when and from where the target missile was being launched and what its trajectory would be. It's a little like Eisenhower calling Hitler and saying, "Adolph, we're attacking the coast of France Tuesday morning at dawn. Act surprised."

Counting last week's launch and intercept, since 2002, there have only been four successful tests of shield rocketry. Our missile defense budget has tripled since George W. Bush became president -- it's now $11 billion a year. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2013, that will climb to almost $19 billion, about half the budget of the Department of Homeland Security. It is making hundreds of defense contractors -- including Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon -- and subcontractors richer, with no end to the gravy train in sight.

Originally imagined by Reagan and his friends as the ultimate weapon against missile attack by Russia or China, even the Missile Defense Agency admits, "Russia's large strategic offensive force could overwhelm the U.S. system's limited number of deployed interceptors." A 2003 report written by leading scientists for the American Physical Society concluded, "With the technology we judge could become available within the next fifteen years, defending against a single ICBM would require a thousand or more interceptors."

And yet former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld plunged ahead. As journalist Jack Hitt recounts in the October 4 issue of Rolling Stone, the shield "has morphed... into an all-purpose defense for the Age of Terrorism. For the last few years, the Bush administration has promoted the shield as protection against rogue states like North Korea and Iran. But the State Department recently reached a diplomatic agreement with North Korea that would eliminate its nuclear weapons program, and Iran is years away from developing nuclear capabilities. So whose warheads will the shield protect us from? In August, during a lecture at a missile defense convention, one proponent of the system suggested the possibility of a new ballistic threat from a country that currently possesses no missiles: Venezuela." Ay, caramba.

The most cogent argument against the shield, with its elaborate systems of intercepting missiles, sophisticated radars, satellites and lasers, used to be that it was like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet. But now, as Hitt points out, it's accepted "that any enemy firing an ICBM would camouflage the nuclear warhead with a bunch of decoys." He quotes John Pike, director of he defense think tank Global Security: "It's more like stopping a shotgun blast with a shotgun blast."

What's especially astounding, as Hitt chronicles in his article, is how far the system has inexorably advanced from theory into reality without the American public realizing. "One of the little heralded achievements of the Bush administration," he writes, "was his order in 2002 that instructed the Defense Department to quit wasting so much time testing the shield to see if it will actually work and just deploy the damn thing already."

This is called "spiral development," heavily relying on scale models and computer simulations, skipping over much of the research and development that in the past was deemed essential before putting defense systems on line. If we build it, the thinking goes, maybe we'll figure out how to make it fly. Eventually.

Hitt concludes we've jettisoned the old strategy of mutual assured destruction that would insure a balance of power, capsizing it for "one that depends entirely upon American superiority. But not a superiority based on diplomatic cunning, past generosity or speaking softly; rather, a 'bring 'em on' superiority whose success in the clutch depends on many moving parts -- multiple Pentagon bureaucracies coordinating scores of private contractors, who in turn must come together seamlessly to boot up layers of untested technologies, all of which must work perfectly the first time."

Color me dubious.

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.

Copyright 2007 Michael Winship

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