Star Wars

Published on: 10:36AM Dec 22, 2010

When Ronald Reagan undertook the creation of  his "Star Wars" antimissile defense system, most physicists deemed it very unlikely to succeed. Nearly three decades and more than $100 billion (that the government will admit to having spent), it still doesn’t work.

The problems can be divided into three groups: target acquisition, target destruction and timeliness. Target acquisition can be handled nicely by our satellite system, unless and until a foe knocks a few relevant satellites out of orbit. Just a few years ago, the Chinese demonstrated that capability, one shared by the Russians. Fortunately, the N. Koreans, the Pakistanis and the Iranians are nowhere close.

The second and third problems are closely related. It does little good if incoming missiles are destroyed within three miles of our cities: we will have succeeded in saving a lot of buildings, but the people will still be cooked by radiation. In the testing done to date, the last of which was a failure a couple of days ago, the interceptor missiles have been given the flight path and launch time of the target. Even with that information, the success rate has been about 50%. Had the interceptors been required to acquire targets from satellite information, then process and vector in real time, the probable success rate would have been zero. Worse, the interceptors lack any ability to distinguish a dummy warhead from a live warhead (& I don’t know whether that is technically feasible), so a standard Russian or American multiple warhead missile can readily accommodate both multiple live warheads and a mixture of live and dummies. In other words, a single incoming missile can require several interceptors, one for each warhead. Would arming the missiles with politicians give us live warheads or dummies, do you think?

The question we should be asking our elected officials is "Why?" Why are we spending such a big chunk of money on something that cannot work in a meaningful way? Even if it were technically feasible, it would only work against enemies who couldn’t shoot our satellites out of the sky. Those are the same enemies who wouldn’t be able to send ICBMs with nukes to our shores. Why not spend the money on something productive? Or, if one prefers, why spend the money at all?

Either way, continued Star Wars expenditures are insane. And there are only two political parties to blame. If penguins could vote, would they form a new political party? Perhaps a party that thought National Defense was too important to be left to Republicans and Democrats?