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"Sometimes I Wish I Was Never Born"

06.12.2007 | POLITICS

It seems as if everyone and their defense contractor is arguing about missile defense these days. Among the questions at the center of the storm: Are the Americans being honest about the purpose of this as yet unproven system against a hypothetical threat? Are the Russians overreacting to the system's potential impact on their strategic deterrent? Will the thing ever even work? Is that Al Qaeda we hear laughing? And are there better uses for the world's attention and $100 billion?

With so much talk about missile defense, we thought it was time to talk to missile defense. This is a very sophisticated piece of technology here. If an IBM program can beat a world chess champion, why can't a missile defense program share its thoughts on the controversies over its purpose and placement? To find out, Freezerbox called Max the Missile Defense Main Frame at its base in Fort Greeley, Alaska. In a wide-ranging interview conducted over a secure military phone line, we found the system good-natured, forthcoming and racked by self-doubt.

First off, are you surprised by the attention you've been getting lately? You were global front-page news in early June.
It's been a little overwhelming. I knew proposing to send me to Poland and the Czech Republic was going to cause trouble with the Russians, but I don't think anybody expected things to blow up so fast. I mean, I even overshadowed climate change at G8. That surprised me. I met climate change briefly at a Senate hearing last year and we chatted a bit. Nice guy. I'm sure he's not happy about all the attention I've been getting, but I don't set policy. Hopefully he understands that.

What's your take on recent U.S.-Russian clashes over your purpose? Are you really about "rogue states," or you are part of a larger, quieter plot to neutralize Russia and China's second-strike capability?
Nice try, but I'm not going there. I'm being designed to deal with a single missile launched by Iran or North Korea. And that's all your going to get out of me. How I develop in the future is an open question, but right now I'm focused on the long-range missile threat from Iran. Period.

Iran and North Korea have long-range missiles?
Well, no. But they might one day.

Do you think you could take out a missile today, if you had to?
I'd hate to be asked to take on a real-life missile anytime soon. Remember, I'm still classified as experimental. I need a lot more tests. That said, I'd give it my best shot if I had to perform. I'd definitely rattle off some interceptors in the target's direction. It would help if I knew the target's exact trajectory, of course, like I do in my tests. Without that information I'd be flying blind, as they say. But you never know, I could get lucky. After all the shit I've taken in recent years, it would be nice to be hero for a day.

Speaking of tests, what happened last month? Your critics had another field day.
Jesus that was embarrassing. But it wasn't my fault. I never even got a chance to engage. What happened was the freaking target missile malfunctioned again. The target missile! It was supposed to launch from Kodiak [Alaska] and meet me in the target zone off the Cali coast. But something went screwy and the three-stage rocket veered off course. It didn't even register on my radar. Not for the first time, I just sat there looking stupid at Vandenburg [Air Force Base].

How is anyone supposed to believe you'll work when the U.S. military can't even get proven technology like ballistic missiles to work properly under tightly controlled conditions?
[Sighs] It's a fair question. Look, there's a possibility I'll never work. I'm not going to lie, there are days when I wonder. But no matter how bad things get, I try not to worry. What are they going to do, pull my plug? After dumping $100 bil into me? Doubtful.

The U.S. Congress gave your budget a heavy trim last month. It wasn't just the Democrats, either. Are you afraid the gravy train days are over?
I wouldn't read too much into that. They cut $764 million from my '08 budget, and cut funds for the Eastern European stations in half. That stung a bit, but it's not like I'm going hungry here. There's too many big players with major stakes in me to threaten my survival. Inertia, baby. And the Pentagon is good at coming up with money when the chips are down.

Does it bother you when people call you "Son of Star Wars"?
Like anyone, I prefer to have my own identity. At the same time, it's nice to have name recognition, a legacy that's historic and even a little bit glamorous. But unlike the old man, whose real name was Strategic Defense Initiative, I don't have a massive peace movement to contend with or an ABM Treaty making me technically illegal. In some ways, I have it a lot easier than dad did. I also have the full backing of the current administration. Back in '83, [Reagan Sec. of State George] Schultz just wanted to talk dad up so he could trade him away in arms talks with the Soviets. Only Reagan and [Sec. of Defense] Weinberger had any faith. People can call me "Son of Star Wars" all they want, but I'm my own system, in my own policy context.

Speaking of movies, I have to ask: Have you seen Short Circuit?
[Laughing] Yes, of course. And no, I have never been struck by lightning. Although once I had a close call during a test over the Pacific.

A successful test?
Fuck you. It was raining.

Sorry. Are you capable of love?
I like to think so, but there isn't a lot of time for relationships in my line of work. And the pickings are pretty slim at the bases. Which is one of the reasons I was getting excited about these provincial locations in Poland and the Czech Rep. From what I understand, a system can really get its missiles steaming in those places, if you know what I mean.

I think I follow. Last question. Isn't the threat of an anonymous land-delivered nuclear warhead bigger than the threat of a ballistic missile launch that advertises a return address?
I get this all the time. Of course it's something I worry about. I know better than anyone that if some suitcase nuke goes off in New York or London, people are going to start pointing fingers at me. "Lot of good you did!" they'll say. "Maybe if we had spent more money on securing nuclear materials and nonproliferation, and less on that missile defense boondoggle, this wouldn't have happened," they'll say. And you know what? They just might be right. Maybe the world would be better off without me. The truth is sometimes I wish I was never born.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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