Diplomatic dangers loom with Son of Star Wars push

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2004, 12:00am

President George W. Bush's missile defence shield, for which his administration is seeking extra cash, poses serious diplomatic dangers to its relations with Asia.

Beijing views the project as highly provocative, particularly if the shield was extended to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

The estimated 20 to 40 missiles the mainland has that could reach the US and northern Pacific would be rendered impotent by the system.

Such a scenario could lead to a regional arms race and a deterioration of Sino-US relations when suspicions are growing in Beijing that the US is trying to 'contain' China.

India might be tempted to build up its missile capabilities to counter the Chinese. That move could lead to an escalation of tension with Pakistan.

'Like many countries in the region, we are worried that the co-operation on a missile defence system between the United States and Japan may have negative effects on regional stability and security,' a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry said in December 2002.

Australia's decision last month to buy into the missile shield received a cool response from the region, with Indonesia branding it 'offensive'.

'Son of Star Wars', as the project is known, risks antagonising not only potential adversaries such as China and Russia but also Washington's European allies.

In a bid to win over worried allies, the US has dropped the word 'national' from the missile defence project and is now offering the system to as many friendly countries as want to sign up. But few takers have signed. Many European countries are sceptical and Russia fears the shield will neutralise its own nuclear deterrent, leaving it open to a future pre-emptive strike by the US.

Despite these objections, the Bush administration will press on with developing the system.

'It's as if it is the Holy Grail of defence issues among Republicans,' said military analyst Aldo Borgu, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. 'There is enormous political pressure behind it. Ideologically, Republicans really do believe in it. It's a legacy of the Reagan era.'

The project, which has been described as trying to shoot down a bullet with another bullet, is the country's most ambitious weapons project since the atom bomb.

The idea is to develop and deploy a defensive umbrella to track and destroy incoming ballistic missiles heading towards the US.

It emerged from the Strategic Defence Initiative originally developed by former president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, dubbed Star Wars. That system envisaged hostile missiles being blown out of the sky by a space-based arsenal of lasers and other weapons.

The system now is less complex but no less controversial. It relies on missiles fired from the ground or from ships. There are also plans for a giant laser to be fitted to modified Boeing 747s.

Mr Bush wants to see a rudimentary anti-missile system up and running by September or October, enabling him to bolster his national security credentials on the eve of November's presidential election.

But it is fraught with technical difficulties. In a report last week, the Pentagon's director of operational evaluation, Thomas Christie, said very little system testing was done last year due to underdeveloped components.

As a result, the US Missile Defence Agency will depend on just two flight tests this year to validate the system. Critics said the White House's plan to deploy 15 interceptor missiles by autumn was wildly ambitious.

The missiles would be based in Alaska, with a second potential site in North Dakota. By the end of next year, the Pentagon wants to be able to deploy 20 ground-based interceptor missiles and up to 10 sea-based ones.

In many US military tests held so far, the missiles have failed to hit their target.

The target missile is launched from a base in California, while the interceptor is fired from a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, nearly 8,000km away. The interception is meant to occur at an altitude of 230km, but often the interceptor has been unable to distinguish between the target missile and decoys.

A US defence analyst has likened it to 'trying to hit a hole-in-one when the hole is moving at 17,000 miles per hour with a bunch of other decoy holes'.

Democrat Senator Jack Reed said the report 'makes it clear that in a rush to win an ideological victory, Mr Bush risks prematurely deploying a missile defence system ... that is technologically unproven and will drain resources from other essential priorities'.

It has been hugely expensive. Two decades since Mr Reagan launched the Star Wars programme, it is estimated the US Department of Defence has spent US$75 billion on researching and developing various missile defence systems.

Developing 'Son of Star Wars' was likely to cost US$80 billion to $300 billion, the Los Angeles Times reported. Subject to congressional approval, the Missile Defence Agency's budget for next year is likely to be more than $9 billion.

The US government says the shield is mainly targeted at rogue states such as Iran and North Korea plus, to a lesser extent, accidental launch of missiles by Russia.

But a report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies last month said that despite Pyongyang's rhetoric, there was no firm evidence it had developed nuclear weapons.