Protest targets missile defense plans

About 40 demonstrators rally at Vandenberg Air Force Base oppose the Oct. 2 test of a military prototype.



Protesters picketed Vandenberg Air Force Base Saturday, demanding the military stop plans to test an experimental missile defense system.

Holding signs saying "Preparation for war is disgusting," and "'Star Wars' is expense, not defense," the 40 demonstrators gathered at the heavily traveled main gate for about two hours.

They were met by about a dozen law enforcement officers, who watched over the peaceful but loud protest.

For most of the protesters, the message was the same: They don't want federal money spent on a missile defense system, and they are opposed to the use of weapons in space.

"We stopped 'Star Wars' once and we can do it again," said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Florida-based Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. "We've got to be determined about it."

Their attention is directed toward the Oct. 2 test from Vandenberg of a prototype for a national missile defense system. President Clinton is expected to make a decision next summer on whether to develop the program, which would create "interceptor" missiles that could be fired at any incoming enemy warheads. Clinton already has allocated about $7 billion for missile defense systems including the one scheduled to be tested at Vandenberg.

Gagnon likened the program to a return to former President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based laser program nicknamed "Star Wars."

But Ballistic Missile Defense Organization spokesman Lt. Col. Rick Lehner said the national system is not space based and that it is necessary to protect the nation from possible nuclear missile attacks by "rogue" nations like North Korea.

"This is nothing like the old Star Wars program," said Lehner, who is based at the Pentagon. "It's a minimal system, to give us some kind of defense."

The argument didn't carry much weight with demonstrators who called upon Vandenberg personnel to join their protest.

"This is costing us millions and billions of dollars," said demonstrator Dorothy Boothe, a Los Olivos resident. "We need that money for people, for children who are still hungry, for all kinds of social problems that should be addressed."

An estimated $50 billion has been spent by the United States in developing missile defense systems. The Pentagon said the Oct. 2 test will cost $100 million.

For comparison sake, according to UCSB tuition figures, that is the amount of money it would take to pay four years tuition for the entire undergraduate population, or to send 18,800 students to UCSB for an entire year.

Boothe--who was joined by her husband, Elden "Bud" Boothe, a long-time protester against military buildup--also believes the U.S. should not try to "control" space.

"Space should be for everybody, not just the United States," she said.

During Saturday's event, numerous drivers honked in support, while several others jeered, including one man who yelled: "Don't you have anything better to do with your time?"

The group was closely watched by several units from the California Highway Patrol and two Santa Barbara County Sheriff's officers, who said they were there for protection in case anyone tried to attack the group.

Five Air Force members, who were told to dress in civilian clothes for the event, videotaped and photographed the demonstration from several vantage points. Two van loads of military security police were also in attendance nearby.

Demonstrators included members of the Green Party, California Peace Action, the American Friends Service Committee and the Santa Barbara chapter of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

David Krieger, president of the Santa Barbara-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, maintains the tests undermine the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty signed by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

"It is a very long-standing and important treaty that does far more for our security than any missile defense system," Krieger added. "My feeling is instead of going in this direction and further undermining our relations with the Russians, we should be working on taking advantage of current opportunities and trying to eliminate nuclear weapons."

The protesters intend to return to the base Wednesday morning, the original date for the test launch. It has been rescheduled for early Saturday evening.

(See also our report and call to action)

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