Political Weapons The missile defense shield will help neutralize the tech sector
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, January 17, 2002
President Bush’s problem-plagued missile-defense initiative promises to dramatically shift the balance of power between the technology community and the federal government.
The controversial program has two key ingredients that make that outcome all but inevitable: an enormous and flexible budget for procuring high-tech goods and services — more than $8 billion this year alone — and no requirement whatsoever that any of those goods or services actually work.
Government boondoggles are regrettably common. But the sheer size and technical improbability of the ballistic-missile defense program make it a highly unusual case. In approving Bush’s budget request, Congress gave the Pentagon broad authority to purchase any and all technologies that might be useful. In a subtle but very effective way, that puts the executives at nearly every major tech firm on notice that they might have to go along to get along.
That’s bad news for anyone who thinks democracy works better when people feel free to speak their minds. It’s also disappointing, because many politically moderate tech business leaders were just beginning to play a more active and constructive role in national affairs.
In recent years, for example, a bipartisan group of Peninsula-based tech execs called TechNet provided substantial bankrolls to candidates from both political parties. TechNet won instant respect in 1996 by raising an astonishing $30 million in a few months in connection with just one ballot measure. The group’s financial muscle, combined with its political diversity, finally gave Silicon Valley a coveted position alongside other powerful interest groups, such as Wall Street’s finance industry, organized labor and Hollywood.
TechNet members have been behind many good ideas that might not have gone anywhere without the group’s active financial support, such as the federal moratorium on Internet taxes and increased efforts to strengthen math and science education offerings. Like other trade groups, TechNet has not been above pursuing what some see as its own narrow agenda (its campaign for more foreign-worker visas being the most conspicuous example). But most informed observers agree that the tech industry had only recently come into its own as an independent political force to be reckoned with, for both good and ill.
The missile-defense program promises to disarm that force over time by significantly increasing the tech sector’s dependence on the Pentagon for key research-and-development contracts.
The fact that missile defense is still in the experimental stage will play a critical role in helping stifle political dissent among often skittish tech leaders. Companies that don’t join the missile-defense gravy train risk being run over by it. Tech executives will be forced to worry about whether the federal government’s elephantine foot might suddenly come stomping down on their industries and create a new competitive landscape for their businesses.
Meanwhile, the known technical flaws of the proposed missile-defense shield are so outrageous that some observers have suggested that some new, as-yet-unrevealed super-secret technology must be involved.
Unfortunately, all wishes aside, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The early public tests of the system have been notable not only for their many failures but also for their reliance on readily available off-the-shelf technology that is pushed to and beyond its limits.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld confirmed the poor outlook recently when he admitted that a fully impenetrable missile-defense shield is not even remotely possible in the foreseeable future and is no longer the immediate goal. That unusually candid admission will take some of the heat off defense contractors. But lowering expectations, however necessary, will also make accountability even less likely. (You can almost hear the excuses already: “After all, who expected it to work?”)
Most top tech business leaders have been noticeably silent about the project, which won a huge budget increase in late October. But the controversial idea continues to draw significant opposition elsewhere, most notably from within non-management-related technical and scientific circles.
An overwhelming majority of arms-control experts outside the Republican Party, for example, seem to agree that a ballistic-missile defense shield is a worthless and even dangerous concept. The Federation of American Scientists and the Union of Concerned Scientists have both mounted extensive public-education efforts aimed at highlighting the many practical reasons the plan should be abandoned.
Backpack-size nuclear bombs, for example, have already made missile-delivery systems unnecessary and obsolete. What’s more, even the most advanced missile-defense shield envisioned would be vulnerable to decoy warheads. If an adversary fires off enough inexpensive decoys, it would be impossible to quickly and accurately determine which ones must be shot down. That is, if the government ever figures out how to shoot down a missile with an unknown trajectory, which it has not yet done.
Critics also point out that an enemy can easily foil a porous missile shield by building sufficient numbers of nuclear weapons to make sure enough get through to do the desired damage. The predictable result: a costly new nuclear-arms race. It’s hard to see how multiplying the number of nuclear weapons will make the world a safer place.
Nonetheless, the recently approved budget increase makes missile defense one of the biggest government experiments in history, far surpassing even the famed Manhattan Project, which led to the first atomic bomb. The big difference, of course, is that building an atomic bomb was at least theoretically possible.
Few high-tech business executives will want to get in the way of that kind of juggernaut.
There are few things more welcome than a big customer willing and eager to overpay, particularly if his name is Uncle Sam. Firms that win big, high-margin government contracts often don’t have to worry about making a profit on their other product lines. In the past, that’s made it much easier for such firms to run rivals out of business entirely.
The once-thriving US aircraft industry, for example, has been reduced to just one big commercial supplier, Boeing. Dozens of competing aerospace companies have gone under or have been absorbed by Boeing over the past few decades. Financial pressures associated with big government contracts played a decisive role in that and in many other defense-industry-related consolidations.
No one wants his or her tech firm to become the next McDonnell-Douglas. Unfortunately, the enormous and unfocused missile-defense program threatens to subject many other parts of the tech sector to similar market-distorting government forces.
That’s why many leading tech executives will probably be keeping an even lower political profile going forward, particularly if they’re not big fans of the Bush administration. I don’t think many of them actually expect direct political or economic reprisals as a result of whatever political views they may hold. It’s just that they now have a powerful new reason to play it safe and not do anything that might offend the current administration.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer chastised talk-show host Bill Maher for making remarks Fleischer deemed inflammatory and unpatriotic. “Americans,” Fleischer said, “… need to watch what they say, watch what they do … .”
The missile-defense program makes it more likely tech business leaders will do just that.
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