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Missile Wars

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Frontline airs Missile Wars, a critical look at the missile defense program on most PBS stations Thursday, October 10th.

While Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Rep. Curt Weldon, and other supporters of missile defense get plenty of time to make their case, the reporting supports the critics of the program.

We see the site of Safeguard in North Dakota, the only missile defense the US has ever deployed. It was developed during the Nixon administration at a cost of $25 billion and shut down a day after it became operational. Both the military and the contractor building it agreed the system wouldn’t work.

Then in 1983, Ronald Reagan called for a stategic defense initiative which would make “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Billions were spent, but it was never technically feasible and soon the Soviet Union collapsed and no longer was a threat.

Supporters of missile defense had to find a new justification for the system. They argued that a system had to be built to protect the U.S. from a possible missile attack by rogue nations like Iraq, Iran or North Korea. But a 1995 National Intelligent Estimate (NIE) found that none of them were likely to develop long range missiles for at least 15 years.

Republicans created an outside panel which included supporters of missile defense, but it agreed with the NIE analysis. Finally, a commission headed by Donald Rumsfield using a lower standard concluded in 1998 there was indeed a threat.

But Richard Garwin, a physicist who had helped develop the hydrogen bomb and the only tech expert on the commission, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times expressing his alarm at the congressional response to their report. Garwin tells Frontline, “The strongest proponents of national missile defense have no technical understanding at all.” And the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that “…these rogue nations currently post a threat to the United States…through unconventional, terrorist-style delivery means.”

By June of 2000, Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense. He submitted an $8.3 billion request for missile defense. The Senate Armed Services Committee on September 7th tried to shift $600 million to fight terrorism, but Rumsfeld threatened that Bush would veto it.

The documetary details more recent tests including footage of the command center during a failed test. The Pentagon has since lowered the standards for missile defense tests and classified the results.

General Eugene Habiger who was the former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Command has the last word, “Since 1985, the US has spent over $65 billion on natioanal missile defense, $65 billion. We spents $45 billion on the B-2 bomber, but at least we got 21 bombers out of that investment. But we’ve received absolutely nothing for the 65 billion. Can we as a nation, as we’re fully engaged in a war on terrorism, afford an additional $200 billion on a very unlikely threat? Doesn’t make any sense. I think former Sen. Sam Nunn has said it best. National missile defense has become a theology in the US, not a technology.”

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