The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Friday, October 12, 2007

At least it was a nice day for Gore.

SDI, aka missile defense, aka Star Wars, is in the headlines today. I thought it was a great idea back when I was ten years old or so. Now that I'm an adult, I see it for the counterproductive, money-wasting pipe dream that it is. The same can't be said for the nation's leaders, but that's to be expected from people whose credo of governance is "Fail. Double the budget. Repeat."

Top U.S. and Russian officials ended a day of talks here Friday with sharp disagreements over the deployment of a missile defense system in Europe, how to deal with Iran and other strategic issues.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are in Russia to resolve some of the differences that have pushed relations between Russia and the United States toward a post-Cold War low.

One of the sharpest disagreements centered on a U.S.-proposed missile-defense network in Central Europe, which is designed mostly to defend against an Iranian attack. The Russians have objected to a plan to place 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar tracking installation in the Czech Republic.

The most striking thing about all of this is that missile defense doesn't work. It's unlikely to work for decades (if then), and its already cost the US more money than the development of any other military technology-- I assume that includes the original Manhattan Project and the stealth bomber, which famously cost more than its weight in gold-- in history. But top-level officials are actually re-igniting Cold War tensions over it.

Also in recent months, Russia has announced successful testing of a multi-warhead ICBM that would foil a missile defense system (if one existed), as well as a conventional explosive more powerful than the bombs dropped over Japan. Which might also fool the imaginary SDI. decoys and countermeasures were already around.

What all of this means is that missile technology has already advanced far beyond the proposed capability of missile defense technology that's already cost more than $100 billion and functions successfully only when test conditions ignore every factor one would see in a real-life situation. In that sense, it's like the spam wars. Spam messages will always have the edge, because it's so cheap and simple to tweak existing methods-- anti-spam efforts are invariably a step behind by the time they introduce a new technology.

Anyway, that's the end of my rant (but don't you doubt for a minute that I could go on and on), but it serves as a nice intro to an article I completely missed last month from Rolling Stone. It's all about the insanity that is SDI. Read the whole thing if you want your weekend to be ruined by another textbook example of the "small-government conservatism" that's led us to expanded government, unfettered spending, endless layers of bureaucratic nonsense, and high-tech innovation that would be super awesome if it actually functioned.

Before Rumsfeld came along, missile defense had been stuck for years in research and development. But in 2002, when Bush issued a presidential order to shift from research to deployment, the rules changed overnight. "When Bush announced plans to deploy hardware, the programs were rushed out of R&D, ready or not," says Joseph Cirincione, a national-security expert at the Center for American Progress. "They devoted themselves to deployments instead of making it work."

To justify the deployment of untested technologies, officials at the Missile Defense Agency changed the fundamental epistemology of weapons procurement. In bureaucratic-speak, they ceased following a "knowledge-based" system and relied instead upon what they called a "capability-based" standard. In simple terms, it's the difference between knowing that something works because you've tested it, and believing that something works because all the parts, when put together, should be capable of working. It's the difference between test-driving a car before mass-producing it, and building one from a schematic but deciding not to turn the key for the first time until there's an emergency. It's the difference between the old carpenter's advice of "measure twice, cut once," and the new, Rumsfeldian directive: "Cut already."

In the old knowledge-based days, procurement was based more or less on common sense: Contractors developed a weapons system that showed promise, gradually trying it out in more and more realistic situations. Once progress warranted it, the Pentagon took over and performed "realistic operational testing" under conditions that simulated battle -- rain, heat, sandstorms. But now, under Rumsfeld's "capability-based" standard, entire weapons systems can be built without bothering to see if they will work in the real world.

Today's lesson in small-government conservatism has been brought to you by Joseph Heller.