Pretending to fulfill a 2000 campaign pledge, the Bush administration will soon declare the “activation” of the nation’s second national missile defense (NMD) system. Intended to look good for the election, the new system is likely to repeat the fate of the first one—abject failure.

In the early 1970s, President Nixon activated the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system, which was supposed to protect the United States from incoming communist nuclear weapons, only to deactivate it a short time later after the U.S. government discovered that it didn’t work. Today, the Bush administration is traveling the same road.

Because politics rather than national security is driving the program, the rush to have some sort of system in place by November has led to the mentality of “field now and test later.” After reviewing many weapons programs, the Government Accountability Office has concluded that this tactic usually leads to disaster—generating escalating costs and diminishing performance. Adequate testing must be done before building hardware or costly redesigns probably will be needed when some planned technologies inevitably don’t pan out. With a close election at hand, however, the free-spending Bush administration cares little about the taxpayer’s dollars.

Over the years, according to the New York Times, the U.S. government has spent a whopping $130 billion on missile defense but still has no genuinely effective system to fulfill Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy. The desire on the right to deify Reagan and preserve his legacy has made support for missile defense a litmus test issue—even though it has little to do with national security.

The Bush administration’s activation of six interceptors is a pale shadow of the grandiose Reagan “Star Wars” vision that only fancifully would have stopped a massive Soviet nuclear attack and made atomic weapons obsolete. And even that assumes those interceptors can actually hit real incoming long-range missiles from North Korea or any other “rogue” state.

NMD is the most complex weapon system ever designed. To allow a “bullet to hit another bullet,” the system requires satellite systems for detection of missile launches and tracking, radars for additional tracking, booster rockets to propel the killing warhead, and battle management computers. The Pentagon has conducted some successful intercepts of missiles, but these tests were rigged to help the interceptor kill the incoming missile. The real challenge will be integrating all of these components together so that the interceptor, without cheating, can hit a real missile that might be trying to fool it.

If all of this isn’t bad enough, the larger question of whether such a defense system is even needed remains unanswered. Ever since nuclear weapons were invented, the United States has relied on the world’s most potent atomic arsenal to deter other countries from a nuclear attack. Countries with a few nuclear warheads—which is all the missile system will ever be able to intercept, even if it works—would likely be deterred from using them against the United States anyway by the threat of national incineration by thousands of accurate U.S. warheads. So if deterrence would work more cheaply than adding on expensive missile defenses, why are conservatives so keen on building them?

Glorifying and keeping alive the legacy of Ronald Reagan is only one of several hidden agendas. As recently released Air Force documents on space weapons and fighting doctrine show, the U.S. government wants to put weapons in space. Hawks hope that funding for missile defense will eventually lead to the deployment of space-based interceptors, which will open the door to a panoply of offensive space weapons. Starting an arms race in space is ill-advised, however, when the United States is the country most reliant on commercial and military satellites.

Although the stated purpose of national missile defense is to protect the nation from a few missiles launched from small “rogue” states, many conservatives eventually would like to use a more robust system against China. The problem with any kind of missile defense, however, has always been that an adversary can build additional missiles to saturate the defenses cheaper than expensive defensive systems can be augmented. An increasingly prosperous China should have no trouble “outbuilding” U.S. defenses.

Finally, the September 11 attacks demonstrated that the main threat to America is probably not from missile-delivered nuclear weapons but from those planted by terrorists or commandos using other means—for example, devices smuggled by ship into a U.S. port. In reality, long-range missiles threaten the ability of the United States to meddle willy nilly in the affairs of other countries. For example, if Saddam Hussein had possessed a few nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could have hit the United States, the Bush administration probably would have been deterred from invading Iraq. But it is scary to think of a similarly aggressive future U.S. administration that believes an imperfect missile shield would protect America completely from any missiles launched from a nation under U.S. attack.

Most likely, the Bush administration’s missile defense will be an ineffective waste of money. But even in the unlikely event that NMD is somewhat effective, it remains a dangerous idea and should be scrapped.