Friday, October 12, 2007

Even Jar-Jar Was Never This Bad

(Updated: just wordsmithing)

There's a long piece in last month's Rolling Stone on the U.S. missile defense program. It's written by Jack Hitt, and I highly recommended it.

If you are on the fence about this program, the piece should prove instructive. If you're against it, you might like the details. If you're for it, I challenge you to read the entire article, and then say that again.

Pardon the long post. I just couldn't resist any of these excerpts.

Perhaps you'd like some background music to get you into the appropriately surreal mood while reading:

Let's start with a taste of the boondogglery:

Then, after Osama bin Laden blew a hole in the Pentagon in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld plowed even more money into missile defense -- even though the system was designed to counter large, trackable strikes by an enemy nation rather than small, asymmetrical threats from isolated terrorists. Indeed, the shield's hasty progress from drawing board to hardware resembles nothing so much as the Iraq War: engineered by neoconservatives, founded on blurry threat assessments, approved over the complaints of enfeebled Democrats, its mission periodically adjusted to accommodate the prevailing political winds.

Today, thanks to Rumsfeld's devotion to the shield, missile defense is the single most-expensive weapons system in the American arsenal. The Bush administration has nearly tripled Clinton's average missile defense budget, to $11-billion a year -- a sum almost four times larger than the U.S. government's total spending on energy research. By 2013, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, missile defense will be costing us nearly $19-billion a year -- roughly half the current budget for the entire Department of Homeland Security.

Missile defense exists in a world of its own. It has a special budget process that exempts it from most congressional oversight, and it is pioneering a new acquisitions process that redefines the very nature of what constitutes a "threat." The system has a separate definition to denote what it means for a weapon to "work" and even what it means to "know" something to be true. The shield operates beyond the world of empirical testing, and outside the four service branches of the U.S. military.

Oh, and by the way? All this money, and even a brochure put out by the program itself admits there's no chance it would work against an all-out missile attack launched, say, by Russia or China. Currently, it's being pitched as defense against North Korea and Iran. Take it away, Jack.

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.


Does it get more inane? You bet. See page 6 for how the program might be expanded to defend against aliens from outer space. See page 7 for the new style of evaluating whether this will ever work: faith-based testing. I am not making this up.

Okay, so "faith-based" is Hitt's term. Rumsfeld's term of art was "capability-based." But they both would agree, unlike the testing done for every other piece of procured military hardware, it's specifically not "knowledge-based." Who knew Rummy hated "Old Pentagon" as much as "Old Europe?"

More numbers: Hitt quotes Joseph Cirincione, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress:

The Manhattan Project cost about $22-billion in today's dollars -- and we got a bomb. So far, missile defense has cost more than $100-billion …

And there's this:

In 2003, the American Physical Society convened a study group of top scientists from MIT, Cornell, Stanford, Sandia Labs and Los Alamos … Their conclusion: "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." Currently, we have twenty-two.

How about a little more faith-based thinking? Glad you asked. One key component of the system is called the SBX. This is a radar unit that is supposed to detect the incoming missile (note singular). It's mounted on a ship, about which an SBX engineer says:

It is built to commercial standards, for better or worse, and those are just different from what the Navy does. They intend their hulls to get shot at, and we are really hoping that doesn't happen to us.

My bad. It's not faith-based. It's hope-based.

As to how this program got so out of control, tell me if any of this sounds familiar:

To understand what happened, it is necessary to dial back the clock to 1994, when Newt Gingrich and the new Republican majority took over Congress. To make the case that America faced new threats in the post-Cold War world -- and thus needed to maintain a big defense budget -- Congress ordered America's intelligence agencies to assess the new dangers. The resulting National Intelligence Estimate was issued in 1995.

The problem began when the NIE arrived. The report concluded that there weren't any immediate threats: "The Intelligence Community judges that in the next fifteen years, no country other than the major declared nuclear powers will develop a ballistic missile that could threaten the contiguous forty-eight states or Canada."

Republicans immediately attacked this report. "Extraordinarily sloppy work," declared Sen. John Kyl of Arizona. Missile boosters mandated that a congressional commission be assembled to study this obviously flawed assessment. To ensure they got the answer they wanted, they stacked the commission with Republicans and put Robert Gates, a former CIA director, in charge. Yet Gates and his team concluded that not only was the NIE correct but that things were even less dire than stated.

Enraged, Congress mandated yet another commission. This time, the chairman was none other than Donald Rumsfeld. Working alongside Paul Wolfowitz, the future secretary of defense finally came up with the result that Republicans were looking for. The Rumsfeld Commission established a new standard of threat, asserting that any country with Scud technology would be able to easily convert to ICBM capability. Most important, they determined that the earlier intelligence efforts were flawed because they looked only at "likely" threats instead of "possible" threats -- such as North Korea and Iran and Venezuela.

Read the whole thing.

(h/t: Lawyers, Guns and Money)


clare said...

I love Jack Hitt. Brush with greatness alert: I took a class with him in 1999.

One of the funniest-while-still-
being -informative pieces I ever read was Hitt's piece in the NYTimes Magazine about the new sex drugs on the market. "The Second Sexual Revolution," NYT 2/20/2000.

A sample: "Compared to a kidney or a lung, our genital rig is basic stuff, the corporeal equivalent of a 1968 VW Beetle engine."

You read the rest of it at the link below (I can't remember how to do hotlinks):

Brendan said...

Thanks for the link, Clare. Here it is, linkified.

If you're interested for future reference, my notes on creating a hyperlink live here.