Son of Star Wars?

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, June 24, 2004)


Over the past century, no country has fought alongside the United States more regularly than Australia – from both World Wars to Vietnam to the current conflict in Iraq. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that the Aussies plan to join the U.S. in its planned missile defense program, which it’s extending to allies around the world.

Defense Minister Robert Hill announced Tuesday in Canberra that Australia will sign a “memorandum of understanding” in support of the shield when Hill meets with Donald Rumsfeld in Washington early next month. The minister called the move “a long-term commitment” to strengthening the U.S. alliance and protecting Australian citizens – 88 of whom were killed in the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub by the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah.

“Time and technology do not stand still. Ballistic missile systems, once the monopoly of superpowers, are now within reach of a number of erratic dictatorships. Investment in, and support for, anti-ballistic missile technology is necessary to both deter and, if necessary, defeat such an attack.”

The U.S. Senate voted last week in support of deploying 10 missile interceptors by the end of 2004, taking the first step toward the national missile shield George Bush has advocated consistently since he ran for the presidency in 2000. On Tuesday, the Senate rejected a Democratic amendment that would have shifted funding from the program.

But nobody knows for sure if the system will work. “Operationally realistic” tests on the U.S. interceptors don’t have to take place until October 2005, and the system’s testing track record is not encouraging. Democrats argued against the deployment on those grounds – arguments the Australian opposition echoed.

Kevin Rudd, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Labor Party, told reporters he also believes the system – which the Aussie press has dubbed “Son of Star Wars” – could trigger an arms race with countries like China and India:

“We still don’t know whether missile defense systems actually work. And furthermore, if you seek to construct a missile defense system, does that in turn result in nuclear weapons – (for) countries in our region to increase their arsenal? For these reasons we have profound reservations about missile defense.”

A similar debate is underway in Canada, where the Conservative and Liberal Parties support a Canadian role in the system but the New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois oppose it. The Ottawa Citizen reports NDP leader Jack Layton is trying to make the defense shield an issue in the upcoming election, but says that probably won’t work, as the current government has already committed and voters are unlikely to change their minds on the issue.

A larger problem for Canadians comes down the line, if “Son of Star Wars” lives up to its nickname and adds space weapons to its arsenal in the future. Prime Minister Paul Martin has promised to pull Canada out of the agreement in that scenario, but the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has already requested funding to start developing a space-based interceptor. As Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information told the Citizen, Canada might be boxed into the agreement whether the government likes it or not:

“If you think you had a political problem with the U.S. now over your decision not to support the Bush administration on the Iraq war, just wait until you try to leave missile defense once you’ve signed on and it’s up and running. Then watch the fireworks really begin.”
For those who oppose the missile shield on the grounds of a potential arms race, plans to include Japan and Taiwan are particularly worrisome. The New York Times made this argument in an April editorial (article requires fee):

“Beijing has made it clear that it will build as many missiles as it needs to be able to overwhelm Taiwan — and to strike back should it be attacked by America. By striving to neutralize China’s current arsenal, a missile defense system would encourage Chinese leaders to conclude that the United States and its allies still saw that nation in stark cold-war terms, leading China to stockpile even more missiles. A missile defense would be destabilizing as well as unnecessary.”
Meanwhile, Denmark’s Parliament voted 101-0 on May 27 to let America upgrade an “early warning” radar facility in Greenland, which would be part of the defense system. And as the London Evening Standard reports, Britain has agreed to allow the upgrade of a radar station, and is open to the idea of missile interceptors based in the U.K. (Poland is also reportedly under consideration as an interceptor site). These interceptors – in the event that they work properly – would prevent attacks against America from the Middle East, though British critics argue they’d also make the U.K. a potential target.

As the Bush administration presses forward with its plan, the need to effectively test the missile-defense system becomes increasingly clear. Otherwise, America is not only gambling with its own safety, but with that of allies the world over.

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