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CPSR Newsletter Vol 19, Number 2
Volume 19, Number 2 The CPSR Newsletter Spring 2001

Into the Bush with Missile Defense
by Chris Gray

President Bush (the junior) has finally come clear with his plans for so-called Strategic Defense, better known as Star Wars. In place of the minimalist Clinton proposal, Bush has signed on to a full system including sea, land, air and space components. Pres. Reagan, the daddy of Star Wars, had his own reasons for the program (See Way Out There Indeed) but the main reason the military-industrial complex supported it was that it furthered the militarization of space. The new Star Wars is the same in this. It serves some minor domestic functions, but nothing like neutralizing the Freeze, which is what Reagan used Star Wars I for. And the contracts, while great for the defense industry, could just as well be for other things. The real reason to try and generate enough fear to politically justify a massive missile defense program in the face of tremendous technical problems is that the powers that be have decided that now is the time to seize the high ground once and for all (See box).

There is no need here to reprise the whole range of arguments against the Star Wars proposals or the militarization in space but something needs to be said about the particular perspective of computer professionals towards military systems of this type. CPSR started in opposition to the old Star Wars. The debate among computer scientists on the issue actually played a major role in encouraging most practitioners to accept the real limits of computerization and not just the theoretical boundaries sketched out by the Church-Turing thesis.

The criticisms raised against the old Star Wars fell into three basic areas:

  1. The limitations of computers
  2. The limitations of ballistic missile defense
  3. Systems effects

There isn't reason to go into great detail on these points. Many criticisms of Star Wars are on the net already, including some excellent articles in our own archives. But a few comments are in order.

The work on the limitations of computers in relation to Star Wars specifically and weapons in general is in the bibliography below. In light of it, and more general critiques of science and technology, the faith that the Bush administration and others show in technology is disturbing. They don't care that what they want is deemed impossible now; they assume that eventually anything will be technologically possible. The limitations of ballistic missile defense in general render the whole idea of an ICBM defense nonsensical. It isn't just that it costs the defender 10 to 100 times more to counter a deception by the attacker. The whole idea that any small state or non-governmental organization would choose to deliver weapons of mass destruction by rocket, instead of ship, toy plane, truck, or drug shipment is insane.

The systems effects are multiple and I don't mean the impossibility of predicting the outcomes of complex systems, that is discussed in the technical articles. Rather it is some of the larger effects of ballistic missile defense that are forseeable that we should be concerned with.

If the Star Wars system was really meant as a defensive system only (which is impossible in actual military terms, but let's pretend) then it would be trying to use an impossible technology to solve a horrible problem that was brought into being by technology in the first place. But, since the actual goal of the current plans is just to make the next step in the militarization of space a reality, we have a political goal being met by an impossible technology. And we're paying for it.


Eastport Study Group (1985) A Report to the Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization,
Washington, D.C., U.S. Army.

Floyd, Christine (1985) The Responsible Use of Computers: Where Do We Draw the Line?
CPSR Newsletter, June 1, pp. 4-7.

Gray, Chris Hables (1997) AI at War: An Analysis of the Aegis System in Combat
in Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing 1990, Vol. III, D. Schuler, ed., NY: Ablex, pp. 62-79.

Landau, Susan (1987) The Responsible Use of 'Expert' Systems,
paper presented at DIAC 1987.

Military Space Staff (1988) Computing Remains Toughest SDI Challenge,
Military Space 5, August 29, p. 8.

Nelson, Greg and Redell, David (1986) The Star Wars Computer System,
Abacus 3, no. 1, Winter, pp. 8-22.

Ornstein, Severo, Smith, Brian C. and Suchman, Lucy (1984) Strategic Computing,
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December, pp. 17-24.

Ornstein, Severo and Suchman, Lucy (1985) Reliability and Responsibility,
Abacus 3, no. 1, Fall, pp. 57-61, 68.

Parnas, David (1985) Software Aspects of Strategic Defense Systems,
American Scientist, September-October, pp. 37-46.

_____ (1987) Computers in Weapons: The Limits of Confidence,
in D. Bellin and G. Chapman, eds., Computers in Battle, Harcourt brace Jovanovich, pp. 202-232.

Parnas David and the National Test Bed Study Group (1988) The SDI's National Test Bed: An Appraisal,
CPSR, Inc., Report no. WS-100-5, May.

Pullum, Geoffrey (1987) Natural Language Interfaces and Strategic Computing,
AI and Society 1, no. 1, pp. 47-58.

Smith, Brian C. (1985) The Limits of Correctness in Computers,
in Charles Dunlop and Rob Kling, eds., Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, Academic Press.

What's inside...

© Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
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Palo Alto, CA 94302-0717
Tel. (650) 322-3778
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