Sometime in mid-September, a Minuteman III ballistic missile carrying a dummy nuclear warhead will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base and travel 4,800 miles towards Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands . 20 minutes later, a multiple-stage booster rocket launched from Kwajalein will deliver a “kill vehicle” some 100 miles above earth. Aided by military satellites and an array of ground-based radars, the “kill vehicle” will hone in on the missile and make a “fly-by” without actually intercepting it. Another test will take place a couple months later, probably timed for the November election. If all goes well, the Missile Defense Agency and the Bush administration will rejoice – the U.S. will be just one step away from having an “operational” Ground-Based Mid-course Defense system (GMD), one component of a national missile defense.

GMD’s job is to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with missiles, the proverbial “hitting a bullet with a bullet.” If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. While most Americans remember the Reagan-era “Star Wars” project – a technically unfeasible boondoggle – they may be unaware that a similar project is coming to fruition in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era. In just four short years, the Bush administration has poured $20 billion into developing and deploying a staggering global network of radar, satellites, and sea-, land-, space-, and air-based defense systems, designed to intercept missiles at any point in their flight. This complex, integrated system is collectively called the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). President Bush is prepared to announce that the GMD component is ready to be deployed as the first rudimentary step towards full national missile defense. By the end of the year, six missile silos in Alaska will be equipped with interceptor missiles on alert; four more will be in place at Vandenberg.

This all may come as a surprise to many Americans whose focus has been on two wars and the global fight against terror in the past three years. In the era of low-tech terror, precious resources are being spent to combat a non-existent threat using Cold War technology. Nonetheless, national missile defense is quickly becoming a reality, thanks to the efforts of defense companies, hawks in the Bush administration, and the complicity of some Democrats. “Reality,” however, is a relative term. When GMD goes on-line later this year it will only be “operational” in 3 out of 23 essential categories, according to the Center for Defense Information. Furthermore, out of the eight intercept tests conducted since 1999, only five have succeeded. Five out of eight may not sound so bad, until you consider that the tests are stage-managed to produce positive results. For example, the target in a July 2001 test had a beacon attached to it that helped the “kill vehicle” score a hit. The General Accounting Office has charged, ” As a result of testing shortfalls and the limited time available to test the BMDS being fielded, system effectiveness will be largely unproven when the initial capability goes on alert…” In other words, there is no evidence to demonstrate that missile defense currently works. There may never be since it is impossible to conduct a “realistic” test outside of an actual attack.

Even if missile defense’s problems were limited to kinks that technicians could work out, what is the big rush to have a system ready this year? The Bush administration cites the necessity of dealing with ICBMs in the hands of “rogue states,” especially North Korea . However, North Korea poses only a distant threat in this area because it neither currently possesses the capability nor is likely to use an ICBM because the U.S. could easily track the missile and retaliate with devastating force.

Missile defense is an old idea that just won’t die. It’s been kept alive through changing times and evolving threats through hubris and the will of powerful, well-connected interests. National missile defense drains resources needed to promote peace at home and abroad; threatens global security by trashing long-standing treaties; and provides incentives for other countries to step up their own missile programs.

*Forrest Wilder is the Ruth Floyd Summer Intern at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a graduate of the University of Texas