Created in 1984 as the Strategic Defense Initiative, the United
States’ ballistic missile defense (BMD) program is attempting
to develop a complex system of ground-based interceptor missiles,
carrying kinetic kill vehicles that would destroy enemy ballistic
missiles. Since its inception, the BMD program received about $60
billion, in a continuous flow of about $4 billion annually.
Most of the funding has been allocated to technologies for target
surveillance, acquisition, tracking and kill assessment, directed
energy weapons and kinetic energy weapons.
To justify these expenditures, the BMD organization has publicized
an array of potential benefits that would accrue from its program,
in the form of commercial technology spin-offs. (More details are
available on the Web site: www.acq.osd.mil/bmdo/ bmdolink/html/update.
Among those spin-offs are applications for the automotive industry,
computers and space and innovations in medical technologies. For
instance, Honeywell’s ring laser gyros developed for BMD were
used in commercial aircraft such as Boeing’s 737s and 777s,
with marked improvements in reliability.
If the BMD program proves to be successful, its benefits to national
defense will be obvious. In the meantime, it appears that the wrong
questions are being asked concerning this program, thus generating
All scientific and technological projects that are geared to challenging
and complex phenomena are by nature risky, with uncertain results
or timelines for success.
There are no guarantees that a chosen technical approach will succeed.
In 1909, for instance, Paul Ehrlich discovered the effective use
of organic arsenic in the treatment of syphilis–after 605
experimental attempts. He named the compound "Salvarsan (savior
of souls) 606."
Arguments that funding the BMD system will lead to a renewed arms
race are based on the underlying assumptions that other nations
today have the ability to join in such a development. No other country
or group of countries has the economic resources to catch up to
15 years of technological development of the U.S. BMD program, or
to embark on a continuing effort.
The questions that should be asked are not whether the United States
should fund this specific program, but:
Once we set aside the issues of inherent risks and the threat of
a renewed global arms race, we should fund the BMD effort because
of the potential benefits from such massive investments in cutting-edge
science and technology.
The primary reason for the BMD program is to create a protective
shield against enemy missiles. But, even if an effective shield
does not materialize, these massive investments in technology will
produce outcomes that will be diffused throughout the U.S. economy
Scientific innovations, thus, will be widely diffused and adopted
by a myriad of users in economic and social organizations. In this
sense, the distinctions between military and civilian technology
efforts are impractical and insignificant.
Historically, nations that were able to implement technological
outcomes across sectors proved to be more secure. In addition, there
are benefits accruing to social and economic activities such as
healthcare, manufacturing and information technologies.
As we experience a decline of the public role in funding national
science and technology–that gap being filled by industry–investments
in a massive interdisciplinary scientific program are a welcome
infusion into the overall national strategy for technological advancements.
In 1996, a Congressional Budget Office report estimated the total
cost for the BMD program to be about $5 billion a year through the
year 2030. However expensive some believe this figure to be, such
an annual infusion of science and technology funding merely replaces
the reduction in federal funding commitments for science and technology
in the 1990s.
Funds spent on the complexities of a ballistic missile defense
network will bear fruits that will reverberate throughout the economy.
In the final analysis, years hence, the development of a working
ballistic missile defensive shield may be considered a "bonus"
America’s world superiority, accrued in the past 50 years,
has been due to the confluence of factors such as massive investments
by both public and private sectors in science and technology, popular
support for those programs, investments in an infrastructure of
research institutions and education and an environment supportive
of entrepreneurship and innovation.
To be sure, there is much skepticism within the scientific community
about the BMD program.
Two tests of the system failed in January and July 2000. Scientists
opposing the project cited the complexity of the technologies involved,
and the low probability that the system will be feasible at all.
Last May, Professor Theodore Postol, from the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology wrote a letter to then White House Chief of Staff
John Podesta. The letter contended "that the Exoatmospheric
Kill Vehicle will be defeated by the simplest of balloon decoys."