As any American of any postliterate age can tell you, the “Star Wars” saga has come back in a big way over the past few years in cinema. Furthermore, the Trump administration seems intent on reproducing the symbolism and political norms of the era when Star Wars most dominated the American conversation – namely, the 1980s.
However, the Trump administration has oddly not embraced one specific area where the term “Star Wars” also has meaning – the area of missile defense policy. Those who remember the 1980s or who have a functional knowledge of the history of the era will recall that during those years, the Reagan administration sought to create a satellite-based missile defense program that could effortlessly stop any nuclear missiles fired by the Soviet Union. This space-based program was officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), but was nicknamed the Star Wars missile shield due to its resemblance to the Death Star.
The original concept, unfortunately, never made it out of the research stage. But the spirit that animated it – namely, the desire to create an impenetrable defense against nuclear assault for the United States – could badly use a resurrection. While the past administration seemed content to blindly trust our nuclear rivals not to attack us, and codified this approach through treaties like the new START treaty, there is no reason for Trump’s team to follow the same path.
Indeed, it is rapidly becoming clear due to escalating tensions with North Korea that such a path would be unsustainable in the present moment. Yet as of now, missile defense remains cripplingly underfunded. A new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies makes this point at comprehensive and devastating length, focusing not just on the threat from North Korea, but on rogue actors like ISIS and Iran. One particularly frightening note struck by the CSIS report is that presently, only 44 interceptors exist in locations that could stop missiles from North Korea or Iran.
Furthermore, several of the systems thought to protect the U.S. from nuclear assault are inadequate to the threats posed today. Take the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which essentially stops missiles by remotely sending objects to collide with them in midair. While the system currently protects South Korea, it is only equipped to deal with short-range missiles, not on missiles meant to traverse the Pacific Ocean before they find their target. Ditto the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (AEGIS), which is also only equipped for short-to-intermediate range missiles. Such programs are essential, yes, but not necessarily well-equipped for our needs in the present day.
In fact, the only program that could be adequate to those needs is also the most underfunded. I refer to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), which is both designed to stop long-range missiles and also carries the advantage of being able to stop those missiles no matter from which direction they arrive. As you might expect given its other proclivities, the Obama administration was not particularly interested in funding this (or any) missile defense program, seeing as their entire foreign policy doctrine was based on the idea that soft power and international institutions should act as checks on enemies of America, rather than America itself. That’s all well and good for liberals, but there is no reason for President Trump to fall into the same trap. Unfortunately, the present draft of his budget leaves the Obama-era underfunding of GMD in place. While today’s conservatives and Republicans have every reason to be broadly skeptical of too much military spending, it seems fairly intuitive that stopping a nuclear attack that may come from the increasingly itchy trigger finger of Kim Jong Un is the wrong place for that skepticism to manifest. Indeed, a return to the ethos that inspired the Star Wars missile shield, with its almost utopian vision of an America safe from nuclear war, could drastically decrease the need for other forms of military spending that are only essential because our defense against the unthinkable is weak.
Let’s shore up that weakness. After all, unlike President Obama, President Trump was elected on the promise that he would not underestimate the power of the dark side.