STENNIS SPACE CENTER – The recent announcement that Stennis Space Center beat out other finalists to be selected as the center for the Space-Based Laser (SBL) Performance Test Facility was especially welcomed in light of the slowing Coast and national economies.
Stennis director Roy Estess said the project that will demonstrate the technical feasibility of developing, building and deploying a SBL will have a huge impact on the Coast. “Many people have been working on this for a long time,” Estess said. “We are excited about the impact it will make on our area and look forward to working with the Department of Defense to make this important national initiative a success.”
The design for the facility has not been completed, but Estess said it will be a very large test facility that will simulate the vacuum and other conditions of space. The facility will be located in the northeast corner of Stennis near the Lockheed Martin Advanced Propulsion, Thermal and Meteorology Center now under construction.
The SBL, which is jointly funded by BMDO and the U.S. Air Force, would destroy ballistic missiles in their boost phase only moments after the missiles leave their launch sites.
The announcement of the project, expected to have an economic impact of $100 million over a five-year period, came after Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) met with Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), at Lott’s offices in Washington D.C.
“This is obviously very good news for the employees of Stennis Space Center and a good decision for our nation’s national security as a whole,” Lott said. “Stennis Space Center is becoming a focal point for some of our nation’s most advanced aerospace research and development – a fact with very positive implications for our state’s economy and our efforts to create more good, high-paying jobs for Mississippians.”
SBL is part of the controversial missile defense system known as Star Wars under the Reagan Administration. Star Wars fell out of favor during the Clinton Administration. Lott said that with President George W. Bush committed to deploying a missile defense system, it is fitting that the SBL project should move forward.
But not everyone was pleased with the announcement. The group Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) has long opposed a missile defense system.
“It is not surprising at all that yet another defense project is destined to be based in Mississippi,” said Alise Valene Frye, director of the national security project for Taxpayers for Common Sense. “It appears that the Department of Defense exists purely as Sen. Trent Lott’s personal pork provider. All too often high-priced and poorly defensible projects are sold as an economic benefit with the hopes that taxpayers don’t notice that they are paying for it in the first place. SBL is one of those projects. While TCS supports valid research and development for all sorts of projects, SBL is a highly conceptual program with little evidence to justify the costs of pursuing deployment or even advanced development.”
Frye said there are altogether too many questions not only about the need for such a capability but also about the likelihood of ever actually developing the technology. She said most Americans would be astounded to learn how much money has been spent on Star Wars projects at the cost of other valid yet under funded national security needs. Opponents say that development of the Star War defense system, including SBLs, could lead to another arms race.
“If the U.S. builds a system that can intercept the current generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles, that would be all the more reason for its adversaries to go to the next level of missilery and add decoys and such,” said Dr. Joseph Parker, professor of political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. “It could set off a new generation weapons race far more expensive than the days of the Cold War. In the age of super-high technology, this would be an infinitely more expensive type of arms race.”
Parker said it is hard to know if the announcement at Stennis is a pork barrel project or a legitimate military program. “If they are wasting money on this thing, they might as well waste it in Mississippi as somewhere else,” Parker said. “The tests on anti-ballistic missile systems have not been terribly reassuring. And the tests to date have been designed to intercept one target knowing where the target was coming from, and with no decoys. I think the last one of those down in the Pacific last summer was a big failure. And that was under ideal conditions. I am not a scientist or mathematician and don’t understand the intricacies of how it is done, but I have to put myself in the skeptic category.”
Parker said if the development of the missile defense system goes forward, the cost could be “absolutely mind boggling,” possibly siphoning away money from other fundamental defense programs.
“You can build lots of aircraft carriers and submarines with what that thing would cost,” Parker said. “And what about biological warfare? You can’t intercept that with a missile defense system. One lesson that the USS Cole or the Oklahoma City bombing should have given us is that with all the sophisticated technology in the world, there are still a lot of ways the world is an unsafe place, and only one of them is the intercontinental ballistic missile. I don’t think you could go to sleep at night not worrying because they are really cranking away at Stennis on their computers setting up a missile defense system. There are too many other ways to be blown to hell.”
Lt. Col. Connie Woods, spokesperson for BMDO, said design activity for the facility is expected to begin in April and construction in the last quarter of the year. The facility is expected to be ready for occupation in fiscal 2005 with testing beginning in fiscal 2006. Woods said an estimated 170 to 200 jobs will be created during construction and 200 to 250 jobs created for the six to seven years testing is conducted.
“It is important to realize this is only a technology demonstration at this point,” Woods said. “It is not an operational program. If the Space Based Laser becomes an operational program, there is potential for up to 1,000 jobs.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.