Crossing Nuclear Thresholds

The Bush administration is slowly, and quite consciously, blurring the boundaries between nuclear and conventional war-fighting options.

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Call it Star Wars, parts VII-XXII; but last week, just as Revenge of the Sith was opening galaxy-wide — multiplexes on Tatooine alone were expected to pull in billions — reporter Tim Weiner revealed on the front page of the New York Times that a new presidential directive will soon essentially green-light the future U.S. militarization of space. (When, in December 2001, the administration withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which forbade the weaponization of space, it opened the way for exactly the kind of Pentagon R&D that now threatens to come to mutant fruition in the heavens.) Just three days before Weiner’s piece appeared, military analyst William Arkin reported in the Washington Post that “[e]arly last summer, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved a top secret ‘Interim Global Strike Alert Order,'” preparing the way for devastating attacks against hostile powers developing weapons of mass destruction, air strikes that could be carried out more or less on demand anywhere on the planet and, if so desired, included a “nuclear option.”

These two actions don’t represent separate worlds of planning. One of the imagined future weapons for Rumsfeld’s “global strike” force, for instance, turns out to be a CAV (Common Aero Vehicle) which, from space, could theoretically hit any target on Earth with a massive dose of conventional munitions on half an hour’s notice. Of this weapon, the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus wrote, “The first-generation CAV, expected to be ready by 2010, will have ?an incredible capability to provide the warfighter with a global reach capability against high payoff targets,’ Gen. Lance W. Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, told the House Armed Services Committee? The system could, Lord said, ?deliver a conventional payload precisely on target within minutes of a valid command and control release order.'”

Such “global strike” space weaponry, while not (yet) nuclearized, would not be far off in impact. For instance, according to Weiner, one such weapon, Hypervelocity Rod Bundles (nicknamed “Rods from God”), aims “to hurl cylinders of tungsten, titanium or uranium from the edge of space to destroy targets on the ground, striking at speeds of about 7,200 miles an hour with the force of a small nuclear weapon.” In this way, the boundaries between the previously almost unusable nuclear option and more conventional war-fighting options are slowly — and quite consciously — being blurred by the Bush administration.

Let’s put a label on these developments: Proliferation. In space as on Earth, the Bush strategists have an almost primal urge to cross strategic and weapons barriers and thresholds of all sorts, and head into uncharted territory; or, as an old TV space opera used to put it, “boldly to go where no man has gone before.” (On Star Trek, though, the voyages of the USS Enterprise were, at least theoretically, peaceful in nature, and the announcement of the next destination didn’t automatically end with an explosion.)

Perhaps there’s another label that might capture even better the administration’s primal global urge — in this case, a label much beloved by the Air Force Space Command, those “Guardians of the High Frontier” (as they so flatteringly like to call themselves): “dominance” or “space superiority.” (“Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny,” [Space Command’s General Lord] told an Air Force conference in September. “Space superiority is our day-to-day mission. Space supremacy is our vision for the future.”) In the old Army Air Corps anthem, airmen sang of taking off “into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun”; now I suppose it should be “the wild, black yonder.”

There has been much on-line controversy lately about whether the new Star Wars movie is an attack on the Bush administration. One thing can certainly be said: Where Star Wars went long ago, Bush administration fantasies are now heading. After all, what is a CAV, but a little “Death Star,” that terrible, planet-destroying instrument of the on-screen Evil Empire. As Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information pointed out in a recent article, “[O]rbiting ‘death stars’ to attack ground targets are being considered. Pete Teets, the former acting secretary of the U.S. Air Force has said: ‘We haven’t reached the point of strafing and bombing from space – nonetheless, we are thinking about those possibilities.'”

In fact, “thinking” turns out to be something of a euphemism, given that the first tests of parts of the CAV program are to be carried out later this year. Of course, the Bush high-frontiersmen and the high-frontiersmen of the military-industrial complex (into which so many space-based tax dollars are already flowing) are just dying to test new generations of threshold-busting weapons (can’t wait!). And yet, most of these bizarre weapons are technologically daunting and deficit-bustingly expensive. As Weiner points out: “Richard Garwin, widely regarded as a dean of American weapons science, and three colleagues wrote in the March issue of IEEE Spectrum, the professional journal of electric engineering, that ‘a space-based laser would cost $100 million per target, compared with $600,000 for a Tomahawk missile.'”

In addition, based on past history, such futuristic dream-weaponry is likely to be about as successful as our $100 billion (so far) Star Wars anti-missile system which has proved incapable of intercepting anything smaller than the Queen Mary or faster than a tractor; and — irony of ironies — the decision to test, and then try to deploy, such systems is likely not only to start a space arms race, but to make us all (and the satellites we now depend on for so much) far more vulnerable than at present. According to Demetri Sevastopulo of the British Financial Times, the Russian answer to the news in the New York Times piece was instantaneous and grim: “Russia would consider using force if necessary to respond if the US put a combat weapon into space, according to a senior Russian official.”

Space domination — meaning war-fighting in space — is a form of Earthly madness. But the path of proliferation, once started down has its own mad logic. Bush’s top officials have been stuck on global dominance since they took power. Dominance has just turned out to be a little harder to come by on Earth than advertised? but, ah, space? All those boys who grew up on sci-fi movies and moon shots, now have their moment. And a boy can always dream, can’t he?

The only problem is that Bush’s dreamers, having swallowed their inside-the-beltway global-power fantasies whole, turn out to play the dominance game like the global klutzes they are. Admittedly, they’ve been in their Darth Vader outfits breathing hard for quite a while — every day another threat (and if John Bolton makes it to the UN, change that to a threat a second) — but they seem to lack the power effectively to demand a pizza delivery for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

None of this makes what they’re doing any less dangerous. As Jonathan Schell points out in his latest “Letter from Ground Zero” in the new issue of the Nation magazine, the new “global strike” plans revealed by Arkin represent part of a revolution in what passes for nuclear policy-making in this country.

So, proliferation planet? Sure, that’s on the way. Now, though, we’re intent on proliferating in the heavens as on Earth. Think of it as a package deal.

Tom Engelhardt writes and edits, where this piece first appeared as an introduction to Jonathan Schell’s “A Revolution in American Nuclear Policy”.


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