By Eric Chauvistre

Eric Chauvistre is in the Department of International Relations of the Australian National University.

While the Government is cutting deeper and deeper into public spending programs, it has quietly committed itself to increasing funding to the latest version of the US Star Wars initiative, writes Eric Chauvistre. Despite the severe funding cuts to the public service and to universities, not all bureaucrats and scientists need to worry about their future. One of the lucky exceptions is a group of Star Wars enthusiasts in Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO).

A Coalition policy paper, issued before the Federal election, promised DSTO additional funding for its involvement in the latest version of the US Star Wars program.

The Government did not break its promise, and Defence Minister Ian McLachlan can even count on Labor's endorsement: his predecessor, Senator Robert Ray, paved the way to Australia's involvement in the next phase of Star Wars. Shadow Treasurer Gareth Evans actively supported Canberra's participation in US missile defence programs during his tenure as Foreign Minister.

It has been over 12 years since former President Ronald Reagan announced his vision of a world where nuclear weapons would be made "impotent and obsolete" through effective defences against ballistic missiles. Reagan's "Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI)" was meant to produce a complex system of lasers in space designed to destroy Soviet nuclear missiles before they reached the American continent. SDI resulted in one of the largest military research programs in history and has made a significant contribution to the huge Budget deficit the United States faces today.

A sum of US$40 billion has not produced a system able to intercept nuclear- armed ballistic missiles and is unlikely to do so in the future. But the search for new frontiers by the Pentagon bureaucracy and intensive lobbying by a multi-billion-dollar industry created during the Cold War keep the program alive.

Once a strong opponent of Reagan's Star Wars adventures, the former Labor Government became one of the most active foreign supporters of the sequel. While Australia always tolerated the use of the US satellite ground station in Nurragur for SDI, it was not until last year that Evans and Ray declared that Australia and the US would co-operate on missile defence. The Coalition has made it clear that it is committed to further accelerate this co-operation.

Opponents of SDI, both in the US and Australia, argue that the program would threaten the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 which sets strict limits on defensive systems allowed by both the United States and Russia. This treaty is the basis for reductions of long-range ballistic missiles in the world's largest nuclear arsenals - a goal the Government supports.

When President Bill Clinton got elected to the White House, all Star Wars planners had to do was to change the name plate at their windowless headquarters in the basement of the Pentagon. The former Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) now operates as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organisation (BMDO) - its objectives remain virtually the same. While SDIO focused on systems based on satellites in outer space, BMDO is looking predominantly at Earth-based rockets designed to destroy nuclear missiles on the way to their targets. Clinton recently agreed to an increase in the Star Wars Budget to avoid controversy during the current Presidential campaign.

Largely unnoticed by the general public, Australia got directly involved in the US's most costly post-Cold War arms build-up when experts from the DSTO invited their US colleagues to test anti-missile equipment at South Australia's Woomera rocket test range last year. A second such experiment will soon be conducted in Australia.

The involvement of Australia's DSTO in America's foolish search for a "miracle weapon" may be considered a minor project by a department that is used to calculate in billions of dollars. If the current investment is to make any sense, however, it will lead to very high expenditures in the future. All experience shows that once an armament project of this magnitude has been started, politicians are very reluctant, if not unable, to stop it.

The Star Wars involvement may also turn out to be very costly for Canberra's diplomatic goals, both in the AsiaPacific and globally. Senior foreign affairs officials have repeatedly stated US missile defence plans are the greatest obstacle to further reductions in nuclear arms. The Australian public would be surprised if the Coalition was willing to endanger cuts in nuclear arsenals of the former Cold War antagonists.

A missile defence system in the Asia-Pacific region would also give China an excuse to continue its nuclear build-up. Beijing will argue that such a system reduces the power of smaller nuclear weapon States and that China therefore has to catch up with Russia and the US. No Australian Government can be interested in providing the Chinese military with a pretext for increasing its nuclear weapon arsenal.

The most concerning aspect of the blind support for missile defence research is, however, the belief that the spread of nuclear weapons can be prevented by developing high-tech weaponry in response: The Howard Government's defence policy document states that developing missile defences "will make a significant contribution to the strengthening of non-proliferation regimes in the Asia-Pacific region". The twisted logic behind this concept is that potential adversaries will be so impressed by missile defence systems that they decide to throw away their arms - instead of developing counter-measures to defeat the missile interceptors.

Such a logic is against every historical experience and reflects the mind-set that made the ludicrous arms build-up of the Cold War possible. If the Howard Government is sincere about its search for unnecessary public spending, the budget for DSTO's Star Wars should be a prime target for the razor gang.


Eric Chauvistre
Department of International Relations
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies
The Australian National University
Canberra ACT 0200

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