Politics | June 29, 2018 5:00 am

Another Star Wars Folly? Lawmaker Says “We’ve Been Here Before”

The House voted against an amendment that would keep taxpayer money away from a space-based shield.

President Ronald Reagan showing support for the Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed Star Wars. The bumper sticker reads SDI could ruin a nuclear bomb's whole day. (Getty)
President Ronald Reagan showing support for the Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed Star Wars. The bumper sticker reads SDI could ruin a nuclear bomb's whole day. (Getty)
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A physicist by training, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) brought some scientific gravitas to the House floor this week when he made his case against spending taxpayer money on a potential new satellite-based missile defense system reminiscent of President Ronald Reagan’s infinitely optimistic and ultimately failed Star Wars program.

“We’ve been here before. The idea of a space-based intercept layer has gone in and out of fashion for the last 30 years,” Foster told his colleagues. “But every time technologically competent outside experts look at this space-based concept, they deem it unworkable, impossibly expensive, vulnerable to countermeasures, easy for an opponent to destroy, easy to overwhelm with a small number of enemy missiles or all of the above.”

Foster, who worked as a “high-energy physicist and particle accelerator designer” before getting into politics a decade ago, briefly touched on some scholarly analysis, citing, for instance, a report by the American Physical Society in 2003 that said such a missile defense system would require perhaps a thousand satellites, costing billions of dollars, and even then it wouldn’t work very well against more than one missile.

“There is no doubt that ensuring that our nation’s defense and national security is of paramount priority,” Foster said, “but before spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, we need to have a serious debate and at least some concept for how this might be remotely practical or affordable.”

Foster was speaking in support of his amendment to this year’s Defense Appropriations Act that would prohibit the use of taxpayer funds for a “space-based ballistic missile intercept layer.” Last year’s appropriations bill directed the military to pursue such a layer “if consistent with the direction or recommendations” of a Ballistic Missile Defense Review that began in 2017. The directive carried over into this year’s bill. (The Missile Defense Review report was scheduled to come out in February but has yet to see the light of day.)

The former scientist failed to convince enough of his colleagues, however, and the Foster amendment failed Thursday, with a vast majority of Republicans and a couple of dozen Democrats voting against it.

The lawmakers may have been thinking about how top national security officials have been warning them that space will be a new front in coming conflicts and were loath to vote against any security-in-space idea. But if the opposing floor speech that followed Foster’s on Wednesday is anything to go by, the amendment ran up against a much sturdier wall: The question of “What if?”

In it, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) acknowledged that the intercept system isn’t currently feasible, but if it *could* be, well wouldn’t that be worth paying for? Why not allow the military to at least keep looking into it?

“With the significant advances being made today by our adversaries in key areas such as hypersonic weapons and expanding nuclear weapon proliferation, we must not restrict the Defense Department from pursuing options to deploy directed energy in space or any other capability that would result in the possibility of boost-phase capability that could be deployed from space,” Lamborn said. “This dangerous amendment would significantly constrain options for developing critical defense capabilities in a gap of our current missile defense system.”

Lamborn noted that lawmakers already debated the space-based missile defense shield idea last year and the proponents won out.

“Now is not the time to curtail this emerging potential capability,” he said.

That mix of national security concern and technological optimism is an echo of the early Star Wars days.

RealClearLife previously reported how retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff, who served Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, described the starry-eyed project then:

“With more money than we knew what to do with, we started all sorts of interesting and scary programs, such as nuclear-pumped space-based lasers,” Latiff writes in his book Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield. “In theory, a nuclear weapon detonated in space would energize multiple lasers to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles. It was all exciting and career-enhancing, though it didn’t take much to realize that it wasn’t going to work.”

Speaking to RealClearLife, Latiff went on to describe some of the technical problems with the space-based energy weapons the U.S. has been trying to overcome — mostly unsuccessfully — in the last 30 years.

In a phone interview Thursday, Foster sounded cordially resigned about his amendment’s loss and suggested that perhaps his colleagues didn’t have the scientific background to truly understand what they were getting themselves and the American people into, should the intercept project go ahead.

“It’s sort of disheartening that this technical knowledge has dissipated away from Congress,” Foster told RealClearLife. “Anyway you look at it, it makes no sense… We’re about to waste a huge amount of taxpayer money on it again.”

But still, what if?

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.