Column: Did I Mention that Spending Billions on Missile Defense Is Stupid?





Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois. To help protect us from “the world’s least-responsible states,” like North Korea, or “accidental missile launches” from Russia or China, the president has poproposed a 57 percent increase on missile defense spending next year – a total of $8.3 billion.

Notwithstanding that any nation that launches missiles “accidentally” really should be included among the “least responsible,” the plan itself has problems. For example, it doesn’t work. We’re also broke; it violates a major treaty with Russia; our friends hate the idea; it could cost more than $200 billion; and the Pentagon says things like “We are in a gray area” when asked by Congress if it knows what it’s doing (I kid you not, see the Washington Post, 7-13-01, p. A05). Other than those inconveniences, it’s a goshdarn capital idea.

One curious thing about this administration’s missile defense megalomania is that W. spent so much time during the 2000 campaign ridiculing his predecessor’s inadequate funding for what most militaries find quite handy these days – things like bullets. But we don’t hear that from W. anymore. Instead, we hear it from Democrats such as Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, who recently accused the White House of “grossly underfund[ing]” military necessities only to satisfy its obsessive-compulsive disorder with unworkable missile plans.

Another curiosity lies in the administration’s fixation with the gee-whizzes of missile defense, despite voluminous testimony, such as this from a CIA analyst, that “U.S. territory is probably more likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction from non-missile delivery means … because [they] are less costly and more reliable and accurate.” But of course our military masterminds are not the first to be enraptured by expensive new toys that do little, if anything, to protect the nation’s interests.

In the now-technological Stone Age of the mid-20th century, financially squeezed Germany also invested in high technology at the cost of defending against more real conventional threats. As American armed forces and its allies were beginning to kick the plentiful Scheisse out of Hitler with standard weaponry, the latter wasted precious resources on advanced but often flawed technology that might – and the key word was might -- save his Austrian arse.

The V-2 rocket, for instance, had precisely the same experimental success rate (50 percent) as W.’s missile-defense “kill vehicle,” before daffy Adolph ordered 5000 of them “available for wholesale commitment.” Two had been tested. 90 seconds after launch, the first landed only a half-mile away from Armaments Minister Albert Speer as jubilant “technicians were just explaining [to him] the incredible distance the projectile was covering.” Even if Germany had had the money and know-how to resolve further technical malfunctions and mass produce the V-2, which it didn’t, all 5000 still would have delivered less explosives than a single allied air attack. But Hitler had been “won over” by jive-savvy physicists and was no longer, one might imagine, a judicious target of dissuasion.

Other poorly conceived and finally abandoned experiments in nuclear fission did nothing to enhance the Wehrmacht in its time of need. And costly investments in complexly modifying even more conventional weapons such as the Panther tank brought the distressing result of a product too complicated for the average Joe-Nazi to fix in the field. German systems engineers, being what they are – that is, Germans – never bothered to factor in the human element. If it can be made, make it: don’t mess with asking some half-frozen private on the Russian tundra if he can fix it.

Obviously – just so you carnagephiles don’t write in with counterexamples -- this is not to deny that oodles of 20th-centruy military technology was indeed on target, strategically speaking. It is merely a modest citation of useless technological endeavors and the pitfalls of dogmatic faith in scientific salvation.

Even keeping in mind defense contractors’ political contributions, what forever puzzles me and remains the chief curiosity of missile defense is how this type of humbuggery ever makes it as far as it does. Insurmountable negative odds of success and $8 billion coming from God-knows-where simply don’t carry any weight for decision makers.

Hence, in that plucky spirit of modern government finance -- and wanting my own piece of the pie -- I wish to post this proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts. My hopes are high that fatuity trickles down from the White House, and all I do now is wait for the check.

11Dear NEA Grant Committee,

11

Someone once calculated the odds of a monkey sitting at a typewriter, randomly hitting the keys and successfully producing a replicate Shakespearean play. Well, I don’t recall what those odds were. But I do recall they were poor; that one monkey is very, very unlikely to type up, say, a 35,000-word play along the lines of Hamlet. Hell, a monkey probably doesn’t even know about the shift key.

But what if we hired lots of monkeys to give it a go? What if we had 10 million monkeys randomly typing? Wouldn’t the odds of success be 10 million times greater? Wouldn’t they at least be better than my odds of surviving a nuclear attack under that turkey of a missile shield that your boss wants? And wouldn’t it be worth $8 billion to find out?

For that kind of money we can hire all the needed monkeys at $6 an hour, 133 hours each, to have a whack at this visionary experiment. Its odds of success are far greater than the missile program’s and we just might get a nice play out of it too.

I’m a trifle unclear on how we’ll afford 10 million typewriters, since I budgeted all the money for the monkeys’ pay (minus my agent fee). But isn’t that what you folks consider standard overrun? It’s something we can worry about later. Maybe we can trick the monkeys in their gov’t contracts.

You may wire the money if that’s easier.

Yours, from Easy Street,

P.M. Carpenter


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