‘Star Wars’ hearing slated for Sacramento next week
Bush administration looking to test-market controversial weapons program
Although Missile Defense Agency (MDA) spokesman Rick Lehner probably wouldn’t want to discourage Sacramentans from showing up at next week’s public-comment meeting for his agency’s Ballistic Missile Defense Program, he does sound ambivalent about the quality of feedback he expects to receive.
“We’ve been doing this for years,” said Lehner, who believes the most useful feedback tends to come via written statements from government officials and public interest groups. “A lot of people use the forum to come and explain their political views—on missile defense and on pretty much any other subject that they want to talk about,” he said. “Everything from the high cost of gasoline to robots in space to AIDS research to lack of teachers or the need for more police officers—I mean, just anything and everything they want to talk about that has nothing to do with missile defense. But they’re more than welcome to do that.”
The meeting, which will be held October 19 at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel, concerns the MDA’s draft environmental impact report (EIR) on space weapons and testing, which can be accessed in advance online at www.acq.osd.mil/mda/peis/html/home.html. Other meetings are being held in Honolulu; Anchorage, Alaska; and Arlington, Va. Anchorage is the designated site for a number of missile silos that would be used in the program, and Sacramento was chosen because of its proximity to Beale Air Force Base. Located 40 miles north of Sacramento, Beale houses the program’s radar-detection facilities.
The administration argues that, in a post-9/11 world, a missile shield is the only way to keep the country safe. Critics counter that the likelihood of an incoming missile being intercepted by another missile is equivalent to relying on one bullet to stop another in mid-flight. Currently, the MDA is moving forward with a two-part EIR, one considering only sea- and ground-based interceptors and the other containing a full-blown space-based weapons program.
In recent months, the administration has tended to downplay the program, especially the space-based part. The Washington Post reported last month that scheduled tests have been postponed until late in the year, well after the election is over. Earlier this year, Air Force Magazine announced that the Pentagon had set October 1 as the date for “IDO” (initial defensive operations), a report that Lehner disputes. “That’s really incorrect,” said the MDA official. “October 1 was really the day we planned to deliver a basic infrastructure for providing a defense against long-range missiles for the United States. And we delivered all the equipment. But operations won’t begin until the people who will actually operate the system have made a decision when to actually be in operation.”
“There are really no plans to have any kind of weapons in space,” added Lehner when it was pointed out that the EIR contains a space-based weapon component. “And there are certainly no offensive weapons that were ever even thought of—it’s strictly defensive interceptors. But it’s just not the priority right now to have any kind of a space-based system. There’s just not enough resources, and the technology is just not there to go forward.”
But in the aftermath of the administration’s pre-emptive war in Iraq, some remain skeptical about the motivations behind the program, let alone its feasibility.
“There have been stirrings for the last couple of years that [administration officials] have been interested in trying to develop what they call a ‘space test bed,’ which would allow them to build some interceptors and put them in space and play with them and see what they can do,” said David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. “They actually came out and announced that they wanted to do it by 2006 or 2007, and then not too long afterward, they came out and said, well, actually we don’t have anything to put up there, so it won’t happen by then.”
The fact that the space-based weapon option is specifically detailed in the MDA report under consideration was largely a matter of convenience, Lehner insists. “It only required a little more work to go ahead and do the space-based portion of it,” he said, “so the feeling was, let’s go ahead and do it now versus having to it later—in case we have to do it later.”
Rick Bettis, a retired civil engineer and Sacramento peace activist who attended a preliminary hearing on the subject last year, doubts the agency has any real interest in public comment.
“I’m involved in a lot of local issues and of course review EIRs all the time, and they’re supposed to be about getting public input to inform the decision-makers,” said Bettis. “But here it looks like it’s kind of pro-forma, like they’re just going through the motions. People would get up and talk about the fact we’re putting all of these billions of dollars into this defense system and it would be better used for other purposes, like medical research or education and housing and all of these social needs that we have. And [the MDA] would just say thank you and move on.”
Past MDA hearings have been neither well-publicized nor well-attended. “Not a single person showed up here in Washington, D.C.,” said Lehner, “and only a few showed up in Seattle, a few in Anchorage and very few in Hawaii.”
But the program is getting plenty of attention from Canada, which is being pressured by the United States to get with the program.
“The U.S. has been pushing pretty hard on the Canadians to join onto the missile defense system, and that has caused a big debate in Canada,” said Wright. “There’s a lot of concern about this system, and so what some Canadians have been saying is: We’re willing to sign onto the missile defense, but we’re really drawing the line at anything in space.”
Yet, to hear Lehner tell it, such concerns are altogether unnecessary. “Well, I’ve talked to a lot of people in Canada. In their minds, they think of satellites that shoot missiles down at the Earth. I mean, that’s not even something that we’re even working on here in missile defense. We’re strictly trying to shoot down another missile after it’s launched,” said Lehner. “The only advantage to space-based is that you can cover the entire globe and you have a shorter warning time that might be necessary to shoot down a missile. But the priority is sea- and ground-based interceptors.”