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Published: Monday, 5/3/2004

Starry-eyed over 'Star Wars'

Nearly $100 billion of taxpayer money has been expended, but the missile defense system recycled through three presidential administrations is really no further along than when it was merely a figment of Ronald Reagan's imagination 20 years ago.

While conceding that the secretive Missile Defense Agency has made strides in some aspects of the program in the past year, the General Accounting Office reports that the bottom line remains the same: No one knows whether it will work to protect the United States against whatever enemy missiles may be out there.

That's because, six months from its scheduled readiness date, test interceptors have hit only half of their targets, none of the components has been flight-tested in final form, and the GAO reports that the system "has not been tested under unscripted, operationally realistic conditions."

But it's going to be deployed by Election Day anyway, to meet President Bush's 2000 campaign promise. And don't dare ask the price. Cost overruns alone were $380 million last year, according to the GAO. The estimated price tag over the next five years is a staggering $53 billion.

Dreamed up during the Reagan Administration as a fanciful system of laser weapons that could shoot down enemy ballistic missiles from space, the so-called "Star Wars" project was nudged along during the Clinton years so the Democratic administration wouldn't be accused by Republicans of being soft on defense.

Once envisioned as protecting the U.S. from enemies all over the globe, the system that is to be deployed this fall with several interceptors in Alaska, two radar stations, and a tracking ship has been scaled back to protection against a limited attack from northeast Asia. That means North Korea, the country that can't keep its dynamite trains from exploding.

For those who point out that it seems fruitless to charge into full production and deployment of a missile system that hasn't been fully tested, much less perfected, the Pentagon's response is, essentially, that an unproven system is better than nothing.

In addition, the GAO reports, the Missile Defense Agency has failed to give Congress the usual "life cycle" estimates to determine future costs for equipment, construction, operation, and maintenance.

In short, this is the ideal project for the starry-eyed technocrats in the Pentagon and defense industry, one that hits the big trifecta: no clear need, no clear cost, and no clear chance of success.

But we can be sure of this much: The taxpayers - that's you - will foot the bill, no matter what.

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