Star Wars; Phantom Menace or New Hope?

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  • by Anup Shah
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The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed in 1972, between the United States and the former Soviet Union (now applying to Russia) was to prohibit the use of defensive systems that might give an advantage to one side over the other in a nuclear war. The Mutually Assured Destruction scenario was invoked here to assure that each nation had enough weapons to survive a nuclear attack and therefore have the ability to annihilate the other. Their rationale was that as long as both sides remained defenseless, in this respect, neither country would dare attack the other.

While the United States has now withdrawn from this treaty (as of mid-December 2001), even before that, was controversially spending a lot of public money on research and development of a "Star Wars" missile defense program. While bound to the treaty, such research and development was breaking the treaty. However withdrawing from the treaty completely, allows research and development to proceed.

The missile defence program has been based on the assumptions that:

  • There is a significant threat of missile attack to the US to warrant such measures
  • It will actually work
  • International relations will be unaffected
  • Costs will be acceptable

On this page:

  1. There is a significant threat of missile attack to the US to warrant such measures
  2. It will actually work
  3. International relations will be unaffected
  4. Costs will be acceptable
  5. So why is development continuing?
    1. Maintain military and economic superiority
    2. Corporate interests
    3. Hence, development continues
  6. U.S. Withdraws from the ABM Treaty, December 2001
  7. More Information

There is a significant threat of missile attack to the US to warrant such measures

In reality, as well as violating the ABM treaty, only China and Russia have the capability to launch such intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach US soil. However, they are unlikely to do so, which has even been admitted by the CIA.

"The missile threat has been greatly exaggerated, while the consequences of deploying a NMD system have been downplayed. The government's top ballistic missile analyst, Robert Walpole, has repeatedly pointed out that an attack on U.S. territory with a weapon of mass destruction has a "return address" on it, meaning the U.S. would know exactly where it came from and would launch a devastating retaliatory strike. North Korea, the supposed impetus behind U.S. missile defense efforts, is years away from developing a reliable ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. Furthermore, Pyongyang has put its missile program on hold to pursue negotiations with Washington."

Michelle Ciarrocca and William Hartung, Star Wars Revisited, Foreign Policy In Focus, Volume 6, Number 25, June 2001

There are fears that "rogue" states such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq could develop such missiles. However, that is unfounded and could be regarded as fear-mongering:

  • Foreign Policy In Focus points out that the U.S. State Department acknowledges that North Korea has not been involved in international terrorism for over 15 years. Furthermore, North Korea has been unsuccessful in developing long-range missiles and has many other internal and regional issues to contend with, rather than directing any attacks at the US. They have also constructively engaged in discussions that have even seen the US lift some sanctions on North Korea. They had also halted development of their missiles since around 1998. (Although recently they have indicated that they would continue to sell missiles, which in the past has also been a sore point.)

    "As for North Korea, Iran, or Iraq, there are other methods of dealing with the threat of a ballistic missile attack from these nations that would be far less costly and far more effective than building a multibillion-dollar missile shield. But instead of picking up where the Clinton administration left off in talks with Pyongyang, Bush started his term by delaying further negotiations until his administration could conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. As Spurgeon Keeny, president of the Arms Control Association, notes, Bush's actions (or lack thereof) are "widely perceived internationally as intended to preserve, and even enhance, the North Korean ballistic missile threat so that it can serve as the rationale for early deployment of a national missile defense." Initial Bush administration efforts to restart the talks with North Korea aroused skepticism when new demands were laid on Pyongyang in the area of conventional force reductions without indicating when or whether Washington would meet its original obligations under the framework agreement. If implemented as planned, the framework agreement could scale back and eventually eliminate Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs as part of an overall improvement in U.S.-North Korean economic and political relations. President Bush should fulfill America's long-overdue commitments under the nuclear framework agreement with North Korea and should continue to support South Korea's efforts at cooperation and reconciliation with North Korea."

    Michelle Ciarrocca and William Hartung, Star Wars Revisited, Foreign Policy In Focus, Volume 6, Number 25, June 2001
    (And as the above seemed to ironically predict, in late 2002, North Korea admitted to pursuing a nuclear development program. In January 2003, North Korea annouced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, and has also threatened to resume ballistic missile threats, accusing the U.S. of nullifying agreements.)
  • It seems absurd that Iraq could even try to create such missiles, given the sanctions that have decimated the country and the reparations it pays for the 1991 Gulf War. The continuous spotlight on Iraq and posturing against them will probably ensure that they cannot develop such weapons. They did not even dare to use the chemical weapons it had against the US and its allies, for fear of even worse reprisal. It is therefore unlikely that they would use nuclear weapons. It would be a suicidal move.
  • Iran also has regional worries itself. It is also trying to move towards a more open, democratic society (but not without its internal issues that accompany such change). It has also been very open to nuclear weapons inspections. The U.N. body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), responsible for inspecting nation's on their nuclear and other related policies, says that Iran is fully compliant with the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Admittedly the weapons inspections is not perfect, and while it is possible that Iran might be pursuing a nuclear policy, various U.S. agencies and Russian technicians claim that they would have many severe problems. However, regional power concerns seem to be pushing Iran towards nuclear options as a means to counter Israel's nuclear capabilities and Iraq's previous attempts at regional hegemony.

    "Few doubt Iran's intention to develop a covert nuclear weapons program. Yet the weight of the evidence suggests that its military applied research program remains in its preliminary stages. Most analysts agree that Iran is not able to fund or staff a program equal to that which existed in Iraq prior to the Gulf conflict. Reports from Russian technicians with experience in Iran indicate that even the civilian nuclear program lacks cohesion and is marked by technical deficiencies. Absent a more capable nuclear infrastructure, or a covert input of fissile material from a foreign source, it appears that the focus remains on developing military research capabilities. Such an approach allows for a practical military program to be rapidly instituted at a more opportune time. This approach also allows Iran to walk a fine line of legality insofar as international safeguards and controls are concerned.

    Tehran has been careful to follow the letter, as opposed to the spirit, of the law. Both President Mohammad Khatami and his predecessor, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have categorically denied that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran points out that it is party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has accepted full scope safeguards, and is entitled to import nuclear reactors and other technologies under the provisions of the treaty. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has regularly inspected all of Iran's declared nuclear facilities, reports that it is in full compliance with the NPT, and has found no evidence of a nuclear weapons effort. Following revelations about Iraqi clandestine nuclear facilities in 1991, the IAEA invoked its authority to conduct special inspections of undeclared sites. Hoping to avoid suspicion that is was in violation of the NPT, Iran allowed the IAEA to visit any site upon request. The agency has made several visits to undeclared sites in Iran, but has failed to uncover any non-sanctioned activities. IAEA inspections remain an imperfect mechanism for monitoring clandestine weapons programs, and experts are divided as to the value of these visits. Nevertheless, Iranian officials refer to this inspection record with a mixture of pride and defiance. Other nuclear weapons programs in the region, they insist with some justification, are not so transparent."

    Michael Donovan, Iran, Israel and Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East, Center for Defence Information, February 14, 2002

    The above quoted article has many more details.

Note that the Star Wars program is aimed to protect US soil, so if Iran or North Korea do become "threats" it would be in their region, not the continental US. Using Iran and North Korea as reasons therefore perhaps does not justify the development of this type of missile defense system.

And the likelihood of such a type of attack from another nation is almost suicidal, because the US military would retaliate in full force.

In addition, defenses against an improbable ballistic missile attack against the United States provide no protection against more likely forms of attack, including cruise missiles and terrorist action. (Side NoteSince originally writing this page in 2000, on September 11, 2001, we saw the ghastly act of terrorism in the U.S. that destroyed the World Trade Center Twin Towers and damaged part of the Pentagon. The "weapons" used were "planes-turned-missiles". Afghanistan then facing bombardment for harboring the suspected perpetrators. See this site's section on the war on terror for more information on that.)

Recently, the U.S. has engaged with European friendly nations to discuss expanding the defense shield over them as well. However, there are additional fears that this would pull those nations into further dependency with the U.S. and increase security concerns for them at the same time, leading to more unpopular military expenditure.

"America's best tools are as they have long been- diplomacy, deterrence and good sense. If the U.S. is going to unshackle itself from arms control agreements which at one time it fought so tenaciously to create and insists instead on being free to devise any options or course it deems appropriate, irrespective of what even its closest allies think, then it could produce the very result it is trying to avoid."

Jonathan Power, Forthcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference Could Backfire on America, Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, March 29th. 2000

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It will actually work

"In addition to the evidence of outright fraud, the NMD program has recently been subjected to a flurry of questions from critics within the Pentagon and the US intelligence community."

William Hartung and Michelle Ciarrocca, Star Wars II; Here We Go Again, The Nation Magazine, June 19, 2000

The technological task is complex, and many tests have not really worked. It is also pointed out by many that a missile defense system could easily be overwhelmed by a large number of missiles and decoys.

Also, what would be the effect of intercepting a nuclear weapon in space and destroying it there? Could there still be a fall out, which may cover an even wider area of the planet?

"While observing that certain parts of the NMD complex have been shown to operate effectively and to be technologically feasible, Mr. Coyle repeated an analogy used by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) to illustrate how much more needs to be done: "[I]n golf there is hitting a hole-in-one, which is hard to do. There is hitting a hole-in-one when the hole is moving but you know where it's going....We succeeded in doing that in the first flight intercept test....And then there is hitting a hole-in-one where the hole is moving and you don't know where it's going exactly, perhaps. And there may be other holes on the green with flags sticking out of them that are not the real hole and you have to discriminate between the real one and the fake ones, the countermeasures."

To which we would add, 'and do it every time.'"

Colonel Daniel Smith, Deferring NMD -- The President and the Chief Pentagon Tester Speak, Weekly Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, Volume 4, Issue #36, September 8, 2000

(Since originally writing the above, more tests have occured, some successful, some not, but also with increasing requirements, such as for protecting small regions, national regions and so on. See this interview from the Center for Defense Information (CDI) for more details.)

See also this CDI series of tables that look at the results of missile defence system tests, and the issues associated with them.

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International relations will be unaffected

International relations will be sorely affected (and already are).

"If you look at world history, ever since men began waging war, you will see that there's a permanent race between sword and shield. The sword always wins. The more improvements that are made to the shield, the more improvements are made to the sword. We think that with these systems [missile defense], we are just going to spur swordmakers to intensify their efforts. China, which was already working harder than we realized on both nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles for them, would of course be encouraged to intensify those efforts, and it has the resources to do so. India would be encouraged to do the same thing, and it, too, has the resources. And it would also increase tensions within NATO, which would be too bad.

"... critics, as well as Washington's own intelligence community, have warned that NMD [National Missile Defence] deployment is likely to set off a new arms race that could ripple across the Eurasian continent, provoking first China, then India, and then Pakistan to either build up their own missile forces or trying to deploy anti-missile defences of their own."

French President Jacques Chirac, an interview in The New York Times on December 17, 1999.
Jim Lobe, Bush's New Era of Missile Defence Heightens Tensions, Inter Press Service, May 2, 2001
  • The ABM treaty has been abrogated by the United States. At the beginning of May 2001, U.S. President, George Bush announced a indication of withdrawal of support for the ABM treaty, saying it was an outdated Cold War relic. In December 2001, the U.S. officially withdrew. With the "war on terror" there has been less outspoken criticism of this as there had been before. As the previous link reports, "Today's most urgent threat, according to Bush, is from a small number of missiles in the hands of what Washington calls "rogue states."" Although George Bush may not have been able to predict the tragedy of September 11, 2001, just a few months later, it does highlight that the threats are likely to not be conventional military threats, but terrorism, which requires a different approach. Furthermore, what message does this abrogation send to other nations who are pressured to sign on to international agreements?
  • According to the "talking points" documents obtained exclusively by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, U.S. negotiators have sought to allay Russian fears about a possible U.S. national missile defense (NMD) system by ruling out any future reductions in strategic nuclear warheads below the 1,500-2,000 level and encouraging Russia to maintain its nuclear forces on constant alert.
  • If the US creates a defense system, some fear that this will allow them to pursue their own globalization/national interests even more aggressively.
  • Some also fear that this would be a precursor to space-based military developments.
  • Other nations will have heightened fears for their own security and hence consider arms procurement. Ironically, this could be the reason that the US could eventually feel threatened. The US move would not then be a reaction to arms proliferation, it would be a cause of it.

    "Just how big a threat missile defense could pose to U.S. security can be found in a report issued last summer by the National Intelligence Council. That report suggested that deployment of such a system would likely provoke "an unsettling series of political and military ripple effects ... that would include a sharp buildup of strategic and medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the further spread of military technology in the Middle East.""

    ... Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that U.S. violation of the ABM Treaty would force Russia to augment its nuclear capability by mounting multiple warheads on its missiles. At the same time, Putin suggested that both the START I and START II treaties would be negated by the U.S. abrogating the ABM Treaty. The termination of these treaties would also eliminate verification and inspection requirements and allow Russia to hide its nuclear capabilities.

    Michelle Ciarrocca and William Hartung, Star Wars Revisited, Foreign Policy In Focus, Volume 6, Number 25, June 2001
  • India and Pakistan for example have confirmed their nuclear capabilities and India, together with China and Russia have expressed their concerns at US aggression, often violating international law. Deployment of a US national missile defence system therefore risks drawing South Asia into an arms race.
  • The UK's then Conservative opposition party leader, William Hague has announced at the beginning of 2001 that he would support the US scheme and has urged the UK government to do so as well. This has already caused concern within UK political circles and across Europe. If the Labour government were to be supportive of this, it would put UK at odds with the rest of Europe. Already discussions at the end of 2002 about the U.S. installing parts of missile defense systems in UK and other European countries is causing concern that these countries could also become targets of terrorist attacks.

"On May 19, a few days after Postol sent his letter to the White House, the Los Angeles Times published an interview with a high-level US intelligence official who flatly contradicted the Clinton Administration's contention that China has nothing to fear from a limited US NMD system. The official also noted that the North Korean and Iranian missile threats have not been moving along as rapidly as expected, and he asserted that the concept of the "rogue state" was in itself an impediment to objective analysis of the missile threat."

William Hartung and Michelle Ciarrocca, Star Wars II; Here We Go Again, The Nation Magazine, June 19, 2000

Instead of reducing security concerns, it is heightened. There are other, more peaceful ways to promote better security and cooperation between nations, as the following hints:

"[T]he poorer and weaker nations and peoples of the world regard the entire BMD controversy with a mixture of disbelief and disgust. For the world's richest nation [USA] to spend such enormous sums on unproven and provocative technologies while failing to pay the full amount of their dues to the UN, refusing to agree to total debt relief for the poorest nations, and denying full access to American markets for such key Third World products as textiles and sugar, seems utterly incomprehensible. To put this in specific perspective: it was estimated by a Greenpeace activist from the Cook Islands that the $100 million wasted on the failed July 7, 2000 test could have built and run a hospital and provided free university education for the entire population of the Cook Islands for many decades. Surely, American security would be better served by spending money on such worthy projects than by a futile attempt to create an unattainable Fortress America."

Michael Wallace, Ballistic Missile Defense: The view from the cheap seats, (Nuclear Age Peace Foundation)

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Costs will be acceptable

"Seen in the terms of the total spectrum of security threats facing the United States, the new missile threat is worrisome but limited. Spending tens of billions of dollars on an unproven national missile defense to meet it, while undermining the diplomatic, verification and control mechanisms of the non-proliferation regime and diverting resources from the conventional military capacity that is a major part of our deterrent force, would be a mistake. It is like buying expensive insurance against meteors while shortchanging household fire protection."

Stephen Young, Responses to the Threat; The First Lines of Defense, Pushing the Limits: The Decision on National Missile Defense, Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, July 2000

The U.S. has already spent $122 billion on missile defense from 1957 to 1999. The US non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the cost of almost $60 billion for a limited national missile defense system, which has not yet been shown to be effective.

A report by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and Economists Allied for Arms Reduction finds that the missile defense system could cost $800 billion to $1.2 trillion. This includes the cost to develop, deploy, operate and maintain the multi-tiered missile defense system envisioned by the Bush administration. Operation and maintenance costs of the system have not typically featured in previous government estimates:

Ballistic missile defense is technologically extremely challenging and efforts to solve the technical challenges, including those of evolving countermeasures, are inevitably laden with uncertainty and, therefore, are expensive. The Bush administration's interest in building a comprehensive, or "layered," missile defense system could lead to extraordinary defense budget costs over the next twenty to thirty years. The projected costs of all the layers and components of a layered missile defense are seldom in public view, and never all at one time. Moreover, the projected future costs over the plausible life cycles of missile defense systems are rarely examined and poorly understood by key decision makers, at least outside the missile defense realm itself. Presentations of the technical and cost issues needed for congressional accountability frequently conceal more than they reveal. Assessments of the likely cost of missile defense architectures that are intelligible to the public as a whole hardly exist.

... Once longer term operations and support costs are added to acquisition costs to give a picture of the total life cycle costs for each missile defense system in the overall system, we find that the likely future cost of layered missile defense would be, on the Low Estimate side, between $785 billion and $825 billion dollars at least, and on the High Estimate side, between $1.1 trillion and $1.2 trillion.

Richard F. Kaufman et. al, The Full Costs of Ballistic Missile Defense, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Economists Allied for Arms Reduction, January 2003 [Note link is to PDF formatted document.]

There are other priorities regarding national security for the US that would also help avoid geopolitical implications of pursuing such a system. Diplomatic negotiations and treaties in nuclear non-proliferation has already proven more successful than deterrence in reducing nuclear weapons, and so spending so much money for such a defense system doesn't seem to make sense.

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So why is development continuing?

President George W. Bush last week declared that he wants " lead the world toward a more safe world when it comes to nuclear weaponry." But do his proposed policies really take the world down the path towards "safety" or do they simply make the world safe for U.S. unilateralism -- and in so doing threaten to disconnect U.S. security from the security of our allies and thus actually render us less secure?

Colonel Daniel Smith, USA (Ret.), Chief of Research, Making the World Safe for the United States, Weekly Defense Monitor, The Center for Defense Information, Volume 5, Issue #5, February 1, 2001

Maintain military and economic superiority

One reason why development is still continuing given that the conditions that could warrant such deployment do not hold, is the fact that achieving some sort of missile defense superiority would allow the US to "expand" their interests to other nations more confidently.

Historically, powerful nations have had to find ways to maintain and enhance their military capabilities to back up their trade and economic objectives. Without this, they would not be able to promote their interests. While the rest of the world, compared to the US is relatively weak, militarily, various nations have shown that it is possible to achieve prosperity and economic development. If this were to continue, then the US's influence around the world could lessen and this would affect their economic superiority and way of life. As a result, being able to develop a missile defense system would allow them to expand further if needed and maintain superiority, knowing that they would have an upper hand (assuming that missile defence would actually work).

Military intervention has been used by the United States, and other imperial powers throughout history to ensure that economics, resources, trade etc remain in their favor.

For more about the relationship between trade, militarization and poverty etc, visit the following sections from this web site:

Corporate interests

Another reason is the corporate interests. Four of the largest military contractors have a stake in this: Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon and TRW. They are all involved in creating some part of the missile defence system. It would be in their interest to continue this, as they would profit from the public funding.

As real risks of war diminish, arms corporations face less profits. Promoting such needs whereby they profit leads to a form of corporate welfare, and is also irresponsible due to the serious impacts of pursuing such policies. For more about this perspective, visit this web site's section on the arms trade.

Hence, development continues

On September 1, 2000 President Clinton announced a deferral of the start of the construction due to technical problems. However, it by no means signified that development would be over.

"As John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists put it, "This [the Clinton deferral] is a political decision driven by the need to defend Al Gore from Republicans rather than defend America against missiles.""

William Hartung and Michelle Ciarrocca, Star Wars II; Here We Go Again, The Nation Magazine, June 19, 2000

In fact, as US President, George W. Bush, came into power, he indicated clearly that he is to continue the missile defence initiative as part of an overall adapting military strategy.

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U.S. Withdraws from the ABM Treaty, December 2001

On November 29, 2001, the United Nations General Assembley adopted a resolution (albeit non-binding) calling on Moscow and Washington to preserve and strengthen the ABM treaty. The resolution passed with 84 voted, 5 against (including the U.S.) and 62 absentions. (See the U.N. document at this link.) While non-binding, it reflects a majority of international support for the ABM treaty.

However, just a couple of weeks later, towards the middle of December 2001, the U.S. officially abandoned the treaty, (and the treaty gives six months to take effect from withdrawal). There have been mixed reactions and some Western European leaders have also agreed that the ABM treaty was out-dated. However, with the new war on terrorism and Bush's threatening maxim of "you are either with us or against us" this apparent luke warm support from former critical countries is not too surprising.

As the previous link also highlights, around that time, while Putin may have in some respects been somewhat more receptive to the withdrawal because of the common fight against terrorism, Putin is very much at odds with many in the Russian elite. It is also feared to give China another excuse to pursue an arms build up that it wanted to pursue.

When combined with other actions of the Bush Administration, other countries and people find room for many criticisms.

Another concern about the withdrawal has been the unilateral decision to withdraw, by George Bush invoking the Powers of Executive Privilege. As the previous link points out, as well as Democrats and others concerned about this, so too have been some Republicans.

The Federation of American Scientists (founded by scientists who built the first atomic bomb in 1945) has been very vocal in its response to Bush's withdrawal, claiming that the "ABM Treaty withdrawal [is] an attack on American security".

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