|Volume 19, Number 2||The CPSR Newsletter||Spring 2001|
Priorities and Risks--What We Have Left to Lose
by Carl Page
As the most powerful military power in the Earth's history, the United States has unprecedented freedom to act.
We can be the world's cop. Though careful alliances, diplomacy and economic power, we can end war. With focused attention we can end abject poverty worldwide and reverse the process of ecological devastation.
The technology of automation will continue to eliminate tedious human labor. The planet is producing enough food to feed its 6 billion humans, and the technology exists to distribute food equitably. There is still work to do to civilize the fierce competitive cultures that maintain the system of mass poverty.
America is accused of "cultural imperialism" but American cultural products are so pervasive primarily because of strong popular demand for American Pop. Our tradition of freedom of expression gives us the advantage in satisfying that crucial lowest common denominator. People worldwide emulate our dress, music, American English. Streets in Spain are plastered with signs touting "American Pornography" and Texas Pizza. Parents in China have as much trouble keeping kids away from Disney as parents in Palestine. It is not just the attraction of our opulent lifestyle, but demand for our traditions of freedom that creates the interest in Americana. People wish to embrace and extend our bill of rights.
The world is not faced with an inevitable specter of future impoverished overpopulation. Prosperous nations have voluntarily adjusted their birthrates below replacement, and it is easy to see how technology could provide for the gain due to lengthened life span. The success of the prosperous nations can serve as a model for the "developing" nations.
We now understand how the extension of credit at reasonable interest rates to individuals without collateral can break the cycle of poverty without requiring perpetual infusions of charity.
We are not theocratic or autocratic and we know how to build stable, happy cities, where religion is an important part of the social fabric, but does not goad us in to war.
There are no hostile nations with significant economies and good morale. The "rogue nations" are collapsing from within due to economic insolvency, as did the USSR. A little cultural imperialism and effective economic support could finish them off.
This is a moment of great opportunity. It might not last.
The Real Threats
Against all these possibilities lies the grim reality most of Earth's citizens face. The suffering can end with the right cultural adjustments. And therein lies the real threat to the US. Economic decline and deep human suffering are the seeds of aggressive nationalism.
Robotic technology will alter the economy as well as military technology. While the goal of true artificial intelligence seems like a receding target, you don't need AI to fly a cruise missileespecially if they don't turn off the GPS satellites. It doesn't take much technology or money to remotely activate thousands of cheap naval mines and keep our WWII inspired fleets at bay. You can send in an awful lot of miniature model planes for the cost of a single $200 million F-22 stealth fighter. In the future, the nations with expertise in low cost mass manufacturing will find themselves with the military edge. It was shortsighted for the US government to allow the TV manufacturing industry (and as a consequence the rest of electronics manufacturing) to be drawn offshore in exchange for support in a now historic cold war against the USSR.
Of course as we rebuild our economic infrastructure on technology vulnerable to crackers, we start to make 'info-warfare' feasible.
International arms sales (often subsidized by US Taxpayers) have been shown to be a dramatic destabilizing influence.
How important is it that the vast supply of surplus nuclear weapons in the former USSR remains in reliable hands? The Russians want $100 million for our help with disarmament, yet the administration rejects it. You can't get much National Missile Defense for $100 million, but you can keep a lot of nuclear weapon components off the auction block. Is refusal to invest in this effective preventative actually a highly subversive way to insure that a National Missile Defense system is deployed?
To people who have not ventured outside of America's suburbs, the world seems like a scary place. The real threat is that such people will manage to distort the world to match their expectations. Some people, some companies, some industries, would have an easier time changing a major trading partner into a national enemy, than adapting to a world without enemies.
Is it a time to choose to greet the world with spectacular defense budgets against imaginary enemies? Should we spend 50 times as much avoiding the threat of accidentally launched ballistic missiles as we spend on controlling the potential epidemic of multi-drug resistant TB?
Should we risk disrupting the consumer economy by messing up relations with China, where all our "new things" are manufactured? (You'd think at least Free Trade true believers would be able to answer that.) Yet because China has built a relatively rational number of nuclear ICBM's, around 18 it is said, they understand that any defensive system will require them to build more to maintain mutually assured destruction. China is changing for the better incredibly fast as they incorporate the lessons from Hong Kong, accomplishing cultural and technological changes in a decade that took the west five times as long. Their stability will be challenged as they gain a middle class with the economic power to achieve freedom of expression. One can argue whether commercial engagement is always beneficial for human rights, but it is hard to find value in policies which force China back in to its isolationist and elitist pattern where human rights have no chance of improving.
Why we call it Star Wars
Over the last two decades, various anti-missile and anti-satellite programs that fit under the general description "Star Wars" have been richly funded. They have been repeatedly disgraced and replaced with new programs with different names, different flip-charts, the same people and the same budget. The program's various names have been euphemistic politically correct, and deeply misleading. Only "Star Wars" expresses the program's grand intentions. How else can we express the willingness to fund development such as the X-Ray Laser, that is far enough out there in the realm of the controversial-theoretical, that planning a schedule for deployment is simply science fiction. The program's supporters have many different ideas, but the original impetus was the to take control of the High Frontier. Learning how to use weapons in space to effectively control events on Earth is one of the more popular and controversial reasons for Star Wars. We should not help divert attention from the true purpose by promoting the falsely defensive program name "Ballistic Missile Defense".
The perfect engineering project would meet its goals by implementing its required features on schedule, within budget, with unimpeachable quality. The uncertainty of leading edge engineering typically allows you to choose how to prioritize schedule, cost, quality, or features. Completion is certain if you let any one of those attributes slip far enough. Successful completion requires that they all be with spec. How has the Star Wars project fared as a planned engineering project?
First of all, the goal isn't fixed. The government actually threw out its only copy of billions of dollars worth of secret Star Wars development papers. The mission changes so many times that research results are continually rendered irrelevant. If the goal of the program were stated and fixed, it might be possible to find a cheaper way to accomplish it than killer robots in space.
Star Wars advocates are intent on fixing cost (high to help dependent corporations). They are certain what the schedule must be. (Deployment 3.5 years from now, so the treaties are safely violated before Bush leaves office.) They don't care much about the defense goal. Scarce attention is paid to real threats or other ways to minimize them such as disarmament assistance for Russia or increased diplomacy and economic support of North Korea.
NMD quality is not a matter of concern. The hundreds of billions are spent to create doubt in the opponent's mind, (or pride in the voters heart) not to create a system that would work. For that reason testing is counterproductive. The more you know about its performance, the less fear, and uncertainty and doubt the system can create.
The True Purpose of Star Wars
One evening a few years back, a writer for the "Strange Universe" TV show called and wanted to ask some questions about Star Wars. Isn't it true, she suggested, that the Star Wars program was really intended to protect the earth from the large asteroid hurtling in our direction? I'm afraid my answer was not useful in supporting her sensational thesis. But the question of why the US Government is pursuing this is one that many people have struggled with. The official explanation makes so little sense that it is presumed that there are other reasons.
The program has as many true purposes as it has dependent supporters.
Proof that it isn't a weapons system:
Two powerful motivating factors do exist. One is the desire by military planners for the US to maintain the lead in engineering capacity to build high-tech including space weapons. They understand this to mean keeping groups of engineers occupied working on space projects so they would be available if needed. Unfortunately, engineering skills have a short half-life. You can't preserve engineering talent by putting it on a shelf, or by putting it to work on a non-competitive project.
Unfortunately, military planners cannot choose the right technical directions to develop expertise in. The problem is, a genuine military threat to the US or its allies would probably adapt to confront us at our weakest point with their strongest technology.
For example, if an Asian nation with the capability to do high volume, low cost micro-electronic assembly, decided to confront the US, what sort of war would they choose to fight? Spending billions of dollars and decades to build weapons just like ours is not likely. Perhaps such a country could create millions of semi-autonomous torpedoes and walking robot bombs, or cheap cruise missiles and tiny planes. How much help would space weapons be against such a challenge? Would a "weapons of mass destruction" such as nuclear weapons be usable as a measured response to a high tech "Smart" attack that discriminated well between military and civilian targets? This is an example of where a similar technology would have to be developed on both sides- we would have to build millions of defensive autonomous weapons. And to field adequate numbers, the defensive machines would have to be around the same price as the offensive ones.
Limitations of ballistic missiles
Miniature autonomous weapons would be extremely flexible in their response compared to a ballistic missile. A ballistic missile is very expensive, so even a few requires a large military expenditure. A ballistic missile takes a long time to get to its destination and is destroyed even if it is called off. Its payload is so small that it encourages the development of atomic weapons. The performance of Iraq's scuds, many of which fell apart during re-entry, shows how long range testing is required for effective deployment of a ballistic missile force. (The self-destructing Scuds were counted as Patriot missile hits in a bit of false wartime propaganda that had the effect of building enthusiasm for Star Wars.)
An alternative strategy might be to keep US engineers employed in the civilian economy where their performance is challenged by commercial competition with other engineers around the world. It is always possible to redirect engineering capacity from civilian to wartime use in a genuine national emergency.
Corrosive effects of welfare programs on military contractors
The effect of keeping old military contractors on the dole even when we don't need them has terrible effects on their ability to work or plan for their economic success.
Right now the corporate welfare directed towards military contractors has a corrosive effect on their initiative and self confidence. The use of cost-plus contracting robs them of the discipline of making a corporate budget and sticking to it. Outrageous standards and specifications are created to keep the entire business of supplying the US military separate and uncompetitive with the rest of the economy. "Mil-spec" parts are often supposed to have narrower tolerances and higher reliability, but being made in tiny quantities at incredible cost makes it hard to generate true high quality. The highest electronic part quality comes from tuning a high volume manufacturing processes, not from paying someone 1000 times as much to promise that it is high quality. Part quality matters more to a PC manufacturer with a 4% margin than to a defense contractor that can afford to throw away parts that don't work.
A famous false economy choice was the Space Shuttle's original computer system. It was outfitted with outrageously expensive historic core memory, already 20 years out of date. The excuse was that a rule had to be followed to save money- "use only parts that have been flown before." Making each bit by hand doesn't save money or increase reliability, but it is a great way to make sure old part manufacturers face no new competition for their welfare check. I'm sure no other new project had chosen Core for 10 years prior to the shuttle. You don't have to wonder why USSR designed rockets turn out to be a cheaper way to get payloads in to orbit today. The Air Force is proposing we buy F-22 planes for $200 million each. It is hard to imagine how you could spend that much money on a plane that can still take off.
If all the engineers who know how to work with modern low cost parts live in Asia, the US might find itself in an uncomfortable situation. The economy would benefit, and the military would benefit too because it is easy to hire talented people when needed. It isn't possible to hire talented engineers to sit on their hands or make work- if you try you only keep the really lazy ones who won't keep their skills up to date. And if military history teaches us one thing, it is that wars are fought between economies, not just militaries. When Reagan chose to transform the US from the worlds largest creditor to the worlds largest debtor, that was a more serious blow to US military strength than his weapons build up could ever make up for.
In the future everyone will have cheap cruise missiles, and land mines that can be turned on and off remotely. The US may have ballistic missile defense, but we'll never know for sure, because it will never be challenged in a conflict.
Costs of Star Wars
Why the USSR Disbanded
Star Wars advocates like to take credit for causing the collapse of the USSR, presumably because their leaders couldn't win the Potlatch ceremony by burning as much wealth as America. But isn't it more likely that the USSR decided to engage the world culture and economy due to the aspirations of its people? Don't the Beatles and jazz on the Voice of America deserve some credit for putting the nations of the former USSR on the right track? It was the makers of consumer conveniences and proprietors of attractive tourist destinations that spoiled Red comrades' taste for communism. The Soviet fear of missile attack actually supported the USSR hard liners by justifying their call for a unified defense against imperialist aggression, delaying the inevitable modernization.
© Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
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