by William D. Hartung
The Pentagon’s new Missile Defense Review has been rightly criticized for being dangerous, unworkable, and unaffordable. Or, as Newsweek’s headline on the topic put it, “Trump’s Space Missile Plan Is Too Expensive and Will Not Work, Just Like His Border Wall.” The title is apt not just because both initiatives will cost immense sums while making no one any safer, but because President Trump spent a good portion of a speech that was supposed to be about unveiling his administration’s new missile defense plan railing about the need for his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the border wall and the “space wall” are by no means equivalent. While a border wall would cost billions, the fulfillment of the Pentagon’s multi-faceted missile defense plan could cost hundreds of billions, if not over a trillion. And it could spark an arms race in space that would make a nuclear conflict more likely. Hardly a bargain, by any measure.
John Rood, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy—and a former executive at missile defense contractor and defense behemoth Lockheed Martin—has described his department’s proposed approach as “a new era in missile defense.” But it is suspiciously like an older era—the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan waxed poetic about space-based lasers and other ill-conceived schemes that wasted huge amounts of money while producing zero capability to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Beyond the financial consequences, the biggest risk associated with the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Review is the prospect of placing weapons in space. President Trump fully embraced this option in his speech unveiling the Pentagon plan:
My upcoming budget will invest in a space-based missile defense layer. It’s new technology. It’s ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense and, obviously, of our offense.
Pentagon officials were more circumspect, suggesting that the more experimental elements of the plan—many of them wildly improbable—would be studied first, before large amounts of money begin to flow. As Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, put it:
We’re confident the technologies outlined in the report are technologies we want to investigate…we’re not talking about going straight from the missile defense review to an objective system.
This is a good news/bad news scenario. The fact that the Pentagon is considering putting weapons in space at all is destabilizing in its own right. But there is time for Congress to inject a note of common sense by blocking funding for these new initiatives before they become multi-billion projects with large pork barrel constituencies, led in part by John Rood’s former employer Lockheed Martin and acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan’s longtime corporate employer, Boeing.
The time to stop the possibility of placing weapons in space is now. Thankfully, there are voices of reason in Congress who are poised to do just that. They need our support, expressed as loudly and clearly as possible.