'Star Wars' Turns 25
March 24, 2008 10:10 PM   Subscribe

25 years ago, Ronald Reagan announced the birth of the missile defense system. A quarter-century and $120 billion later, was it worth it?
posted by homunculus (55 comments total)

 
Uh, no?
"That's no moon..."
posted by joe lisboa at 10:12 PM on March 24, 2008


It was worth it all, just for the Bloom County cartoons.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:16 PM on March 24, 2008 [8 favorites]


Of course it was. I mean, we haven't been hit by any missiles since then, have we?

Right?
posted by Rangeboy at 10:16 PM on March 24, 2008


As a fountain of inspiration for film and literature, you can't beat missile defence. $120bn to give Tom Clancy plotting ideas sounds like a good deal to me.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:19 PM on March 24, 2008


I mean it wasn't meant to defend us against missiles as much as outspend the Soviet Union into the ground.
posted by Shakeer at 10:20 PM on March 24, 2008


Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
posted by lumensimus at 10:20 PM on March 24, 2008 [11 favorites]


Neutral beams!
posted by Artw at 10:21 PM on March 24, 2008


We'll see some results if we just pump some more money into it.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:26 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the missile defense program just needs a "surge" and it will be a success.
posted by amyms at 10:35 PM on March 24, 2008


No.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:47 PM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


SDI is terribly misnamed. It should be SOI -- strategic offense initiative. It sorta stands to reason that any nation hiding behind a "missile shield" will be free to launch missiles at whomever it wishes with only minor consequences for themselves. The world looks at us trying to build a nuclear Maginot Line and thinks "Americans + Nukes - consequences = BAD".

Thats really what SDI is all about. We want the ability to nuke anybody we want without fear of (serious) retaliation.

For Freedom, of course.
posted by Avenger at 10:49 PM on March 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


SDI was always idiotic, even when the threat was the Russians.

Want to decapitate the US? There's 20 million ISO shipping containers in the world, making 100 million trips annually. Rarely scanned for radioactivity. And your major cities: New York, Washington, Los Angeles - are on waterways. Put a nuclear device in several containers, add a GPS locator and a timer, and wait. Have more patience? Lose them overboard before you get to port - 10,000 are abandoned so each year. Let them sink to the bottom of the bay. Wait for years, if need be. Need a more conventional military attack? Park a quiet sub off the Atlantic coast: SDI was designed for ICBMs, not cruise missiles.

SDI was always military industrial make-work in the face of Armageddon: even if 90% effective against multiple-warhead ICBMs (highly unlikely) you'd still lose millions to a first strike in 30 minutes or less.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 11:01 PM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


It'd totally work against ICBMs as long as they were allowed to use nuclear warheads and irradiate Canada.
posted by Artw at 11:03 PM on March 24, 2008


Want to decapitate the US? There's 20 million ISO shipping containers in the world, making 100 million trips annually. Rarely scanned for radioactivity.

Evidently there is some radioactivity monitoring going on...
posted by Tube at 11:05 PM on March 24, 2008


"I mean it wasn't meant to defend us against missiles as much as outspend the Soviet Union into the ground."

I can't find it online (if anyone has better luck than me, please post it), but back in the 1980s there was a Tom Toles political cartoon on just this theme, featuring "Ronald Raygun." Toles claimed that SDI was really a money race to the bottom aimed at bankrupting the USSR. Sure, Toles said, the USSR was broke - but so was the US. Still, once you're down $1 Trillion, who's counting?

$1 Trillion in debt... ah, the good old days.
posted by Auden at 11:14 PM on March 24, 2008


was it worth it?

Certainly to the defense contractors it was. Just as W's Iraq war has been an astounding success to these same people and their firms.

Sometimes I'm so disgusted by it all it feels as if my head will pop.
posted by william_boot at 11:38 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I love the "Star Wars was never meant to work, the point was to outspend the Soviet Union" defense. It does two wonderful things -- it behaves as though one of the most wasteful and reckless spending programs in American history was, in fact, an extremely crafty subterfuge designed to bring down the Soviet Union, and then it gives Reagan credit for the collapse of said Soviet Union.

I can't wait to see the spin a later generation of Republicans puts on Iraq to have made it all a brilliant example of long-term planning. Perhaps they will claim the intention was to make the Middle East so angry at us that it would force us to end out dependence of foreign oil. Or that it was a clever scheme to jump start our economy by flooding America with refugees who will certainly start delicious Iraqi restaurants.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:05 AM on March 25, 2008 [4 favorites]


I imagine Iraqi is a dish best served cold.
posted by maxwelton at 12:11 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I can't wait to see the spin a later generation of Republicans puts on Iraq to have made it all a brilliant example of long-term planning.

I don't think there will be a later generation of Republicans. This country seems too fucked to live past another couple Presidential terms without collapsing.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:13 AM on March 25, 2008


^ B.P., I was going to say that we'd muddle through like we did in the previous century, but then I realized that a) it is very likely that this next decade will require the polity to lose the free-lunch mentalilty and actually start paying for our wondrously efficient $3T/yr federal gov't, and b) I ain't planning on exactly being here to see how all this plays out when the s finally and unmistakeably hits the f. . . knowing "Oh Canada" is good for 5 pts on their immigration test, right?
posted by tachikaze at 12:31 AM on March 25, 2008


This country seems too fucked to live past another couple Presidential terms without collapsing.

Didn't we just do this?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:32 AM on March 25, 2008


I always thought that the "SDI" concept was a quintessential Reagan cowboy serial fantasy: instead of shooting the black hat bad guy who's trying to kill him, the white hat hero shoots the gun out of the black hat's hand, thereby humiliating him into going straight and enabling the white hat to get the girl.

To translate this concept into practice in a situation where the bad guy is not waving a Colt Single Action .45 but rather has launched an actual fucking nuclear-tipped IBM at the white hat, the girl and the entire U.S., however, requires a leap of faith no U.S. President or general would ever even remotely take a chance on. One only needs to look at that massive overkill U.S. forces routinely apply in Iraq--B2 strikes against residential areas *suspected* of housing "bad guys"--and Afghanistan--"surgical" Predator strikes into houses full of women and children--to know that the, ahem, excitement of an actual ICBM attack would cause an immediate and catastrophic counterstrike with everything in the arsenal.

Whatever fantasies Reagan may have had of an invulnerable "missile shield" that would make nuclear weapons obsolete (see "Way Out There In The Blue" by Frances Fitzgerald for the details) it is beyond obvious that the Bush Cabal sees missile defence as the only thing it can be: first strike enhancement intended to ensure the survival of counterstrike forces.
posted by rdone at 12:36 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


The point of SDI is that it's something that people desparately want to believe in. Whether or not missle defense actually works is not the point. At some level we all understand that the people in power are insane. Perhaps they're even crazy enough to start a war that would wipe out humanity. After all in the last century the world exploded into wars that spanned the continents of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Ocean. Then we invented weapons that can destroy entire cities. If someone promises you a tool that could protect you from nuclear weapons and the people who control them, wouldn't you want to believe them?
posted by rdr at 1:21 AM on March 25, 2008


I find the whole republican revisionist thing that SDI was part of a grand and highly strategic plan by the man they consider the greatest president ever (WTF?) to spend the Soviet Union into the ground pretty risible. And all the more so as a good proportion of the US electorate seem to believe it to be the gospel truth.

As someone funnier than me once quipped:

'Reagan is credited with ending the Cold War by people who don’t understand that he more or less showed up while it was already ending and shouted, "Everybody into the hot tub!"'
posted by rhymer at 2:10 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's not saying much, I guess, but the notion of missile defense looks strategically brilliant next to the War On Terror. Only $120B? That's, what, a year in Iraq?
posted by Coventry at 2:18 AM on March 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


Did we get a new frying pan out of it?
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:15 AM on March 25, 2008


If fear was the goal then it was successful in that I, having been born in 1975, grew up having nightmares about nuclear obliteration -- and still have them on a blue moon. I can still picture mushroom clouds, flesh being instantly melted from bodies, radioactive fallout... much better than I would like.

I remember the neighbourhood's air-raid siren being tested, and that wail still sends a chill through me to recall.
posted by loiseau at 4:18 AM on March 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


What's worse is that a) they're still wasting money on this boondogle, and b) there are still devoted Republicans out there who will tell you that SDI is not only the greatest thing ever but the only thing that will save America from [insert enemy here].

When I run into people who say that, I tell them they've got a pre-9/11 mentality just to watch the fireworks...
posted by sotonohito at 4:28 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Success? Absolutely an overwhelming success. Think about how much public money has been funneled from the Treasury into the coffers of defense contractors who in return would tithe their 10% back into the campaign coffers of Republican politicians who in turn would vote for the continuation of SDI. Democrats would rail against this corrupt practice if they weren't doing it as well.
posted by any major dude at 4:48 AM on March 25, 2008


Tsk, all you nay-sayers... we've already seen just how effective the Patriot Missle System was against Scuds. I expect SDI to be exactly the same.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:19 AM on March 25, 2008



Tsk, no it was not worth it.

The money should have been spent on 120 B-2 bombers. Stealth is the new black.
posted by fluffycreature at 5:32 AM on March 25, 2008


Thank God we didn't spend that money on the Superconducting Supercollider.
posted by Eideteker at 6:30 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


No, because it's unfeasible; the Soviets knew that. Utopian weapons systems have one purpose only: to keep military contractors in business.
posted by disgruntled at 7:09 AM on March 25, 2008


24 years ago Tom Clancy published his first novel The Hunt for Red October and Reagan announced at a Whitehouse press conference that it was "un-putdownable" - the genre of the "techno thriller" was born - today 100s of authors ply their trade in techno war porn, it's influence on Reagan and a generation of military planners hard to know but certainly real - that combined with the collapse of the USSR and there was a certain amount of hubris that the US military could do anything, they believed their own fiction (BS). It's probably no accident that Clancy has largely dried up as an author since the Iraq debacle.
posted by stbalbach at 7:51 AM on March 25, 2008


It is a small thing, but the Keck Observatory telescope's ability to optically correct for atmospheric aberrations looks a lot like it was derived from Star Wars technology.

Of course billions in to get millions out would not be considered a good investment, but you take what you can get.
posted by eye of newt at 8:17 AM on March 25, 2008


Eh? I'd say the Techno thriller goes back at least as far as the victorian era (where, FWIW it did usually involved submarines).
posted by Artw at 8:17 AM on March 25, 2008


Oh, and the F-117 stealth fighter is being decommisioned already, WTF? How much?
posted by Artw at 8:20 AM on March 25, 2008


Depends what worth means. What else could we have gotten for that kind of money? Universal healthcare? Hovercars? On-call doctors in hovercars?
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:32 AM on March 25, 2008


This program to me epitomizes the military-industrial complex.
posted by anthill at 8:44 AM on March 25, 2008


Oh, and the F-117 stealth fighter is being decommisioned already

Dude, it's been in service for 25 years.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:44 AM on March 25, 2008


They can't even keep the missile pits dry, so I think the challenge of hitting a missile with another missile is probably a bit beyond them.
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:52 AM on March 25, 2008


ROU_Xenophobe - yeah, buit compared with those 70s era fighters that are still going strong? the damn things not even done anything, except for the odd embarassing crash.
posted by Artw at 8:57 AM on March 25, 2008


Another view, from behind the scenes of Reagan's announcement:
http://www.jerrypournelle.com/view/2008/Q1/view510.html#starwars
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 9:01 AM on March 25, 2008


So, youre complaining that you havent seen a stealth fighter do anything?
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:02 AM on March 25, 2008


Minor successes of a program that expensive are not generally kept all that secret.
posted by Artw at 9:03 AM on March 25, 2008


Actually it looks like it did a lot of th bombing in the first gulf war, back when Iraq actually had an air defence, so that's fair enough I guess.
posted by Artw at 9:13 AM on March 25, 2008


In other news, the Mars Rover and Odyssey programs are facing budgets cuts.

Given the recent sighting of a Tusken Raider on Mars, reducing our intelligence gathering there seems very short sighted to me.
posted by homunculus at 11:06 AM on March 25, 2008


It was worth it to everyone who made billions off of that obscene fraud, at least.
posted by Aquaman at 2:50 PM on March 25, 2008


I remember the neighbourhood's air-raid siren being tested, and that wail still sends a chill through me to recall.

I grew up with those. Felt strange when they got rid of them, which is, frankly, appalling.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:43 PM on March 25, 2008


Shipping Snafu Sends ICBM Parts to Taiwan
posted by homunculus at 5:53 PM on March 25, 2008


Wow. $120bn could have funded an alternative fuel program to replace hydrocarbon. Since the Russki's still have hydrocarbon and the U.S. doesn't, and the U.S. can't function in the absence of hydrocarbon - it looks like they won the cold war after all.

Maybe you can tip the fuel out and run power stations on it for a couple of weeks.
posted by falcon at 6:42 AM on March 28, 2008


NATO to back US missile defense
posted by Artw at 10:09 AM on April 3, 2008


Talking of things that are crazy expensive, a B1 Bomber just crashed (that's the not-stealth one).
posted by Artw at 1:26 PM on April 4, 2008


U.S. Can't Stop Chinese Missile; No Tests 'Til 2014
posted by homunculus at 8:38 PM on April 4, 2008


Shooting Down Missile Defense: Congress Takes Another Look at Reagan's $150-Billion 'Star Wars' System
posted by homunculus at 3:11 PM on April 24, 2008


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