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CPSR Newsletter Vol 19, Number 2
Volume 19, Number 2 The CPSR Newsletter Spring 2001

History Doesn't Repeat, It Just Keeps Doing the Same Old Thing
by Mark Gubrud

People like to think of history in terms of cycles and episodes, each controlled by a simple logic or storyline. One story about what we currently call ballistic missile defense (BMD) begins with Ronald Reagan's "star wars speech" of April 23, 1983. Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative was little more than a repackaging of old concepts and ongoing programs, but with a sharp turn in rhetoric and a hefty increase in funding. The SDI attracted enough attention to dominate an era of nuclear history, the "star wars era", which began with a bracing call to escalate the arms race, but petered out with the end of the Cold War.

SDI had a lot to do with the founding and early growth of CPSR, which makes it all the more natural for CPSR activists to view the current G. W. Bush initiative -- to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and to proceed with any missile defense options that appear to have some potential for effectiveness -- as perhaps a rerun of the 1980s, a "star wars 2".

This round of the missile defense delusion may be no less silly than Reagan's rayguns, but analogy is misleading in a number of ways. It would be extremely dangerous to assume, for example, that this initiative is doomed to "collapse of its own weight" as some would argue the SDI did. Very severe and perhaps irreversible damage to the foundations of global security and arms control can be done with no large increase in the BMD budget. Expectations for the technical performance of BMD systems are low, and so this program can go on burning $6 billion a year or so for another decade without having to deliver a usable weapon system, much less a reliable shield.

Meanwhile, a wide variety of sea- and air-based missiles and interceptors, radars and sensors, satellites, potential antisatellite weapons, and potential space-based weapons, including satellite-based antisatellite weapons, can be developed, tested, and deployed, at least in limited numbers, under the rubric of missile defense. Coupled with an expanding space operations base, perhaps even an openly-acknowledged thrust for "space control" through early weaponization of space, the development, testing and deployment of such weapons would set the stage for decades of competition and confrontation in space and on Earth.

Old Dreams of the Die-Hard

Wait -- haven't we heard all this before? Of course; space weapon fantasies date to the earliest days of rocketry, and were pursued by the Nazis with their flaming sword of vengeance, the V-2 rocket, and their dream of a "space bomber." The U.S. Air Force began to study ballistic missile defense in the 1950s, before any threat existed, and many of the concepts still proposed by BMD engineers, such as the deployment of an orbiting fleet of small interceptors, date from that time. Lasers have been studied as antimissile weapons since the early 1960s, and most other proposed BMD schemes are sufficiently obvious that they could have been described at any point in the past 40 years.

Practical engineering has yet to catch up with these ambitions, however. High level studies have regularly concluded that pursuit of an effective ABM capability is unlikely to succeed. The record of BMD testing is a miserable tale of failure, despite a considerable amount of documented fraud. The most robust of antimissile weapons, the interceptor (or antimissile) does not work with better than a fractional single-shot kill probability even in the most carefully staged tests. Moreover, in its only developed version, the midcourse interceptor, it is completely useless in the presence of minimal countermeasures, which can easily overwhelm the defense with clouds of false targets.

There are some reasons to think that boost- and terminal-phase interception may be more robust against simple countermeasures, but the use of such systems is subject to severe requirements, such as siting either close to the missile launcher or close to the protected area. In order to overcome these limitations, the proposal has and will be made to deploy the interceptors on orbit, in large numbers, a constellation of "defensive" satellites that would just happen to give the United States a potent weapon for a first-strike-in-space.

Mobile deployment on ships and aircraft is also proposed, and these weapons merge with other sorts of missile, antimissile and antiaircraft systems. Construction of a serious "missile shield" would require a build-up of platforms, logistics and personnel that could and would support the offensive side of warfare as well. The same ship that carries a naval component of national missile defense would also carry the Aegis air-defense and battle management system and a variety of antiship, antisubmarine, antiaircraft and land-attack weaponry. The same airborne laser that might be used to engage a rising missile might find alternative use against aircraft hundreds of miles away. But both platforms would likely be easy prey for small, cheap missiles. They would be most useful in a coordinated first-strike, while vulnerable to attack in any battle once begun. Combining these characteristics with the short time lines of naval, space, missile and laser battles, we have the paradigm case of military instability.

Marshal Dillon's Six-Shooter

There are advantages to the more radical technologies, such as lasers, various types of particle beams and hypervelocity guns. However, as in the 1980s, the devices we can envision being able to produce and deploy at the present stage of technology would be bulky, clumsy, vulnerable, subject to environmental degradation, and ineffective in unfavorable conditions of weather, geometry, and countermeasures, as well as expensive and difficult to maintain, especially when stationed on orbit.

The only type of "ray gun" that is close to being tested as a deployable weapon is an infrared chemical laser which would be barely able to soften the skin of a distant but slow booster rocket, without melting its own mirrors and combustion chamber. This hydrogen or deuterium flouride laser, under development as an antisatellite weapon since at least Jimmy Carter's presidency, suffers from a fundamental limitation: its conversion of chemical energy (stored in large fuel tanks and expended at a rapid rate in a very limited number of shots) is no more than 20% efficient, meaning that even if the optics focuses and tracks the target perfectly, and the beam suffers no degradation in passing through thousands of miles of space and/or hundreds of miles of atmosphere, the laser still has to dissipate itself four times as much energy as it can direct towards its target. If we can make the laser tough enough to contain and direct megawatt energy flows, it can't be that much more difficult to harden the target to comparable levels. As a result, we can say with some assurance that this will always be a fairly anemic weapon.

The space-based laser is also bulky, fragile, slow to repoint, and hence unable to defend itself against a relatively modest coordinated attack. It is not too much to say that this weapon, when tested on-orbit perhaps a decade hence (a facility for ground testing is now under construction, and space testing has most recently been projected to begin in 2012), will be the grandest turkey the U.S. military has ever floated; ineffective in battle, but critical in the first strike of a satellite war, a sitting duck for small, cheap space mines and for others of its own species, this would be the flagship of America's brave military thrust in space, and an open invitation to disaster.

As ridiculous as this weapon will be, its effect will be deadly on any hope of restraining the arms race in space. Every other would-be space power will feel a need to test and deploy similar or alternative weapons of their own. It might sound incredible to some that the Chinese or the Indians would test space lasers and deploy bombs in orbit to target American satellites. What ought to sound incredible is the idea that United States could test and deploy such weapons, and that other spacefaring nations with great power pretensions would not follow suit.

Space Command publications describe space as a "frontier," and the role of the U.S. in asserting space power as comparable to the role of the U.S. Army and federal marshals in settling the American West. The military self-consciously advertises the rationale for its role in the world in terms of regulating and protecting commerce. If the idea is that the United States will be accepted by the world community as the grand marshal of outer space, shouldn't we wait for a vote, before deputizing ourselves?

The Final Front

Right now, the United States alone is leading the charge toward space weaponization. Russia and China, in particular, have repeatedly requested that the U.S. join in a new round of negotiations toward a space weapons treaty, which would ban the placement of destructive devices in orbit. The United States instead proposes to scuttle the ABM Treaty, which, in the absence of a space weapons convention, stands as the most important arms control restraint on the development and deployment of space weapons.

In taking control of the foreign policy of the United States, the second Bush administration announced at once its intention to depart sharply from the security strategies of the Clinton years, including the attempt at diplomatic engagement with erstwhile "rogues" such as Iran and North Korea, and Clinton's cautious adherence to the ABM Treaty while in the process of attempting to circumvent it.

But the brave talk of missile defense masks the technological reality that no defense is available that is not ruinously expensive, marginally to completely ineffective, and years from deployment. What is more significant, then, is the decisive turn that is being taken away from arms control or even restraint, and towards the launch of a new arms race, one involving many potential competitors, reaching out into space and driving the proliferation of weapons systems here on Earth.

It is a short step from the tone of many recent "vision" documents published by the U.S. military, to that of dystopian science fiction in the mode of The Terminator. Just as the reach of events in the early 1960s has extended even to the present, today we are setting the direction of developments for decades to come. In thinking about where this new road is taking us, we cannot avoid the need to factor in expectations for the continuing rapid development of relevant technologies, such as computer automated design and manufacturing, nanotechnologies of materials and systems, and artificial intelligence.

DARPA and other military funding agencies press scientists for advance prototypes of the semiconductor chips of 2020, showing that Moore's law trends can be fulfilled at least until then. Beyond 2020, they foresee complex systems at the level of nanotechnology. Each advance is to be exploited in any way possible to enhance military power, as soon as it becomes available, while rather little thought is given to the use of advanced technologies in arms control and cooperative security. The fact that potential competitors will follow America's lead in developing new military technologies, is considered the decisive argument in favor of going full steam ahead with these "technology thrusts," without asking whether the U.S. is driving a global arms race that could be avoided if we would instead exercise restraint and press for verifiable, enforceable arms control.

Thanks to the maturation of computer-based information technologies, industrial productivity has improved measurably. The continuing integration of computers in manufacturing will continue to reduce costs, increase flexibility, improve quality and extend the range of the possible. For the military, the possibility of surge manufacturing in highly automated factories, perhaps turned rapidly from civilian to military production in times of crisis, offers an attractive planning option. It is possible that the technologies of this century, driven by artificial intelligence and superautomation, will yield very dramatic increases in the potential scale of production, as well as flexibility and the ability to ramp up quickly.

At some point, the potential for highly automated and rapid military production will add up to a qualitative change in the security environment. As an increasing productive capacity becomes available, it will either be applied immediately to military deployments, potentially driving a chronic arms race, or else an untapped potential will accumulate, inspiring fears of a competitor's secret preparations and setting the stage for a "breakout" or explosive arms race. Thus, in the long term, the only way to prevent the full expression of technological potential as confronting military systems, locked in an intricate and explosive embrace, is to adopt strict arms control regimes rigorously verified and enforced by the same advanced technology that would otherwise have gone into the weapons.

Not Without Rhyme or Rhetoric

The debate on these issues in the U.S. is conducted in a very superficial manner, when at all. Throughout the 1980s the SDI was discussed as a strictly defensive program, despite its encompassing what had been under development as offensive antisatellite weaponry. The chief argument of the opponents was that the system would not work; a secondary theme was that it would destabilize the relationship of the erstwhile superpowers. This was a debate never settled; when the other superpower first made nice and then collapsed, the wind went out of the star wars airbag, but the engorged pork-barrel research program continued, as did rhetorical commitment to the position that "research should continue" because an effective defense might become possible and would be a good thing. Yet already in 1972, in signing the ABM Treaty, we knew an effective defense would not become possible and that pursuing one would be dangerous and ruinous, and we therefore pledged not to do precisely what the SDI and later GPALS and NMD programs proposed to do. Opponents never made a sufficiently strong case that this course of weapons development was undesirable in itself, leading us in the direction of greater danger -- and most dangerous if partly successful.

Nuclear hawks and star warriors were quick to claim vindication from the West's "victory" over the Soviet empire; credit was variously given to the Pershing II and MX missiles, SDI, bankrupting the Soviets on all fronts, or punking them out with our superior technology. In the post-Cold War world, the U.S. was to claim the mantle of the "lone superpower," the indispensable actor on the world stage, with a special role to play in global security and a special exemption from internationally-imposed rules. There was to be no jubilee of nuclear abolition; after a series of reciprocal reductions by Gorbachev and Bush the Elder, nuclear arms control ground to a halt, while space arms issues remained in limbo.

Meanwhile, in its assumed role as global cop, the U.S. was continually rediscovering a need to address the perceived thrust of certain "states of concern" to challenge or deter the U.S. with long-range ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Die-hard opponents of arms control and enthusiasts for star wars dreams waged a relentless and well-funded campaign of political agitation, asserting that the U.S. faced an emerging threat of sudden attack from missile-wielding dictators having "bad hair days" and that the ABM Treaty was "not relevant to the new environment." Russia, our partner in the ABM regime, was increasingly viewed as unable to react or oppose whatever the United States might decide to be "in its own security interest."

Outlook: Trouble Ahead

Rather than assert leadership in promoting a vision of true global security under arms control and international institutions, the Clinton administration sought to compromise with the hard line of Sen. Helms and the far right, acquiescing in the liquidation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and allowing a highly compromised national missile defense program to percolate along toward an invitable collision with the ABM Treaty.

Bush the Younger thus comes to office finding the time ripe for outright abrogation of the ABM Treaty. Star wars 2 is worse than a mere ideological echo of the fizzled Reagan revolution. It carries the historical progress of the global arms race into a new phase, over a threshold that was never crossed in Reagan's time, when the Democrats still resisted abandonment of the framework of global security as it existed. That framework has been eroded by years of neglect and is now in the process of being abandoned, and we do not know where we are going, except into a brave frontier of high-tech weapons development and many way-confrontations at new levels of tension and terror.

We must therefore view the new star wars not in narrow terms as a debate over a few pieces of forlorn military hardware that will sit on launchers waiting to intercept missiles that will never be launched (and may never even exist) and that they probably couldn't hit anyway. That debate is perhaps to be won or lost in the relatively near future. The greater debate is one that will be continuing over this and future decades, although precedents set in the near future may be hard to reverse. We will have to be prepared for an extended struggle to oppose the new arms race and press for a truly secure foundation for the future. Missile defense is only the beginning.

Mark Gubrud is a graduate student in experimental physics at the University of Maryland. He has been an activist on weapons issues, especially nuclear and space weapons, and has written on the impact of advanced technologies.

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