From Solidarity 3/21, 11 January 2003
George Bush uses "war on terror" to restart "Star Wars"
Just before Christmas US President George W Bush announced that the United States military would actively deploy land and sea based anti missile defence systems - commonly known as "Star Wars".
Mark Catterall looks at the background
The controversial "Star Wars" programme has progressed slowly since Ronald Reagan originally announced a plan for a space-based defence shield in the 1980s. As originally conceived, the "Star Wars" missile defence system was to have futuristic space based nuclear powered x-ray lasers, ground based lasers and missiles. But Reagan's planned system was put on the back burner when technological problems and costs spiralled out of control.
Until the end of the "Cold War" the US was hampered by the fact that they had signed treaties with the Soviet Union that limited its military programmes. Specifically, the Space Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) prevented the deployment of missile defence systems. The Space Treaty forbade nuclear weapons being based in space; the ABM Treaty capped the number of missiles that could be used for defence and their capabilities.
Signed by President Nixon, the ABM Treaty was, according to officials on both sides of the Iron Curtain, a way of preventing either the US or the USSR getting in a position to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack confident that defence missiles would protect the homelands. Up until the end of the Cold War,any attempt to alter or abolish the ABM Treaty was seen as undermining the nuclear "balance".
The Star Wars project was never completely closed down. It was resurrected after the 1991 Gulf War. When Iraq used its SCUD type missiles1 to attack Israel and Saudi Arabia, one of the missiles hit a temporary barracks, killing tens of American soldiers. The United States' much-hyped Patriot missiles were unable to prevent it. The US military and ruling class concluded that they need a better anti-missile system.
The US Congress and Bill Clinton clashed over funding for "Star Wars" projects. Clinton preferred diplomacy - a Missile Technology Control regime, in which Russia and China, among others, would agree not to sell missiles with a range longer than 300 kilometres to third parties. Congress wanted to restore funding for both "theatre defence" and national defence missile systems. Clinton never vetoed that expenditure.
"Star Wars" has been a shibboleth of the American right wing politicians since the Reagan era. George W Bush has always backed deployment of the National Missile Defence (NMD) system, as "Star Wars" is now called. September 11 2001, and subsequent calls by a right wing Congress for increased homeland security, have enabled Bush to push the deployment of the NMD shield and abrogate the ABM Treaty.
Vladimir Putin has criticised the move, but in comparatively mild terms. China has been more vigorous in its denunciation of Bush.
Next year, the US will deploy, at first in Alaska, ground based anti-missile missiles. Far from Ronald Reagan's original "Star Wars" idea, these missiles are updates of ones planned before the 1972 ABM Treaty.
The missiles will not, at least in the next 10 years, be able to protect the United States from an attack by Russian intercontinental missiles. The Russians' still huge, though ageing, arsenal of missiles with multiple warheads would flood any defence system. China, often seen by the United States military as a future threat, could rapidly deploy larger numbers of missiles equipped with similar multiple warheads, although at considerable cost.
With the exception of Britain and France no other nation currently has missiles that could reach the United States. The US military claims that within the next decade North Korea and other "rogue states" will be able to field long range missiles to reach the US. There is no guarantee the new US defence systems will work. Reports have stated that five out of eight test shots have worked, or maybe even not that many.
Central to US plans, is the proposed system's ability to protect the American military and its allies from future SCUD missile attack on the battlefield. The bulk of the $9.5 billion a year allocated to missile defence will be spent on theatre missile defence2, with new improved Patriot missiles, ship based missiles, and the one piece of Reagan era technology that has seen the light of day, seven jumbo jets with lasers to shoot down missiles as they take off.
The bottom line is that American military planners want to equip themselves to intervene militarily across the world. The continued fear of the "Vietnam syndrome" - domestic opposition and high American casualties - has limited American active intervention until now. Fear of casualties in the "War Against Terror" is pushing the rapid deployment of missile defence.
American military planners are using the massive increase in defence expenditure pushed through by Bush to give the military the power to dominate any future battlefield technologically and militarily any future battlefield. The USA will still, of course, be powerless against "guided missiles" in the form of hijacked civilian airliners and suicide bombs.
Further info is available at the following web sites:
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament: www.cnduk.org
Federation of American Scientists: www.fas.org
Global Security think tank: www.globalsecurity.org
Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation: www.acq.osd.mil/bmd/
1 SCUD missiles were developed by the USSR and are basically modified versions of World War Two German V-2 missiles. Clones and improved clones have been produced by North Korea and Iraq among others.
2 Theatre defence means defence of the battlefield area and the logistics area immediately behind it, as opposed to "homeland defence"..