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Manifest Destiny: Now in Crystal Meth Flavor

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Historically, military forces have evolved to protect national interests and investments — both military and economic. During the rise of sea commerce, nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests. During the westward expansion of the continental United States, military outposts and the cavalry emerged to protect our wagon trains, settlements, and railroads. As air power developed, its primary purpose was to support and enhance land and sea operations. However, over time, air power evolved into a separate and equal medium of warfare. The emergence of space power follows both of these models. Over the past several decades, space power has primarily supported land, sea, and air operations–strategically and operationally. During the early portion of the 21st century, space power will also evolve into a separate and equal medium of warfare. Likewise, space forces will emerge to protect military and commercial national interests and investment in the space medium due to their increasing importance.
— United States Space Command Vision for 2020 (1997)
available (.pdf format) here.

The New York Times reported yesterday that the Air Force, just in time for the release of “Episode III,” is requesting President iPod’s permission to develop and deploy new offensive and defensive weapons in space:

The Air Force believes “we must establish and maintain space superiority,” Gen. Lance Lord, who leads the Air Force Space Command, told Congress recently. “Simply put, it’s the American way of fighting.” Air Force doctrine defines space superiority as “freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack” in space.

The mission will require new weapons, new space satellites, new ways of doing battle and, by some estimates, hundreds of billions of dollars. It faces enormous technological obstacles. And many of the nation’s allies object to the idea that space is an American frontier.

The awesomely-named Pete Teets, former COO of Lockheed Martin and former acting secretary of the Air Force, told The Times that while “[w]e haven’t reached the point of strafing and bombing from space. . . we are thinking about those possibilities.” One of the new capabilities, called “Global Strike,” would involve a “space plane” carrying up to a half-ton of munitions; according to Lance Lord — where are they finding these incredible names? — Global Strike would offer “an incredible capability” to reach targets “anywhere in the world” in (no, Saddam, I’m not making this up) 45 minutes. It gets even better:

In April, the Air Force launched the XSS-11, an experimental microsatellite with the technical ability to disrupt other nations’ military reconnaissance and communications satellites.

Another Air Force space program, 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.

A third program would bounce laser beams off mirrors hung from space satellites or huge high-altitude blimps, redirecting the lethal rays down to targets around the world. A fourth seeks to turn radio waves into weapons whose powers could range “from tap on the shoulder to toast,” in the words of an Air Force plan.

Why are these new weapons necessary, you ask? Because bloody missile defense doesn’t work!

The Air Force’s drive into space has been accelerated by the Pentagon’s failure to build a missile defense on earth. After spending 22 years and nearly $100 billion, Pentagon officials say they cannot reliably detect and destroy a threat today.

“Are we out of the woods? No,” Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, who directs the Missile Defense Agency, said in an interview. “We’ve got a long way to go, a lot of testing to do.”

The Times claims, erroneously, that these new proposals represent “a substantial shift in American policy” away from the more “pacific” uses for space imagined by the Clinton Administration. If anything, the Air Force proposal affirms what many people have argued since 1967, when Lyndon Johnson proposed the Sentinel program, the forerunner of what is now called “national missile defense” — that the push for “defensive” space weapons is little more than a cover for the full-on weaponization of space. This is why the 1972 ABM Treaty and the lesser-known 1967 Outer Space Treaty were signed in the first place. With the cold war long over, however, the US has spent the past 13 years developing — under three successive presidents — a broad foreign policy demeanor that brooks no opposition to its “full-spectrum dominance.” In the rejuvenated culture of American imperialism, treaties and conventions are rendered “quaint,” and so they may be violated, obeyed or ignored as the situation requires. Got a problem with that? Suck on it, world! We’ve got “interests” to protect.

There are, however, no “national interests” worth defending through the deployment of weapons in space; the unsustainable expense of these projects would quite likely make the nation even more vulnerable to attack by diverting resources away from more worthwhile programs. (For some perspective on this just ask all the people working at American ports and nuclear plants how all that Homeland Security money is working out.) Moreover, the laughable failures of “missile defense” would lead a reasonable person to suspect that “Dildos from God” — or whatever they’re calling it — are probably more thrilling in name than in practice.

None of this matters, though, when you’ve got a hard-on like Lance Lord. “Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny,” he told an Air Force conference in September. “Space superiority is our day-to-day mission. Space supremacy is our vision for the future.”

(cross-posted on Axis of Evel Knievel)

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About davenoon

  • tyler

    A very perceptive article, especially in picking up the Pentagon’s depressingly adolescent attitude encapsulated in their naming schemes. Unfortunately, you’re probably a little off base with one of your closing points:

    “Moreover, the laughable failures of “missile defense” would lead a reasonable person to suspect that “Dildos from God” � or whatever they’re calling it � are probably more thrilling in name than in practice.”

    This idea has been around for a very long time as such things go. Of course, the idea of using inertial weapons (heavy stuff dropped from orbit) to intercept missiles (re-entry vehicles, more precisely) is a famous, spectacular failure. That program went be the charming moniker Brilliant Pebbles and is correctly consigned to the dustbin of history.

    But it’s a lot easier to hit a stationary target on the ground than it is to intercept a high-mach-value ballistic target in re-entry. In fact, with modern satellite surveillance it’s dead simple.

    The original concept was a tank-killer envisioned for use in Europe during the oft-foretold massive Soviet invasion of Germany (or wherever). The device would simply be a crowbar with a tiny rocket motor to nudge it out of orbit a very simple guidance system.

    There is no practical barrier to deployment of this weapon, other than the treaties that are now ignored anyway. The physics are easy. The technology is almost primitive: the only hard part is the command and control (i.e. target assignment and prevention of hijacking). The weapon is cheap enough to be mass produced and deployed in vast numbers quickly. The only real cost is the boost into orbit.

    So, unfortunately, they really do have something here than might work, in a technical sense. The missile-defense boondoggles aren’t relevant, since they’re all manifestations of the same targetting problem. A lot of the physics from the star wars ideas has turned out to be valid: nuclear-pumped x-ray lasers, for example, are quite real and are used in fusion research. It’s just not possible to hit a warhead with one (or anything else for that matter).

    But hitting a tank, car or house with a rock from orbit is quite within our national technical means. So look for this one to be operational pretty fast.

  • I thought the main reason we wanted to put weapons in space and invent cool space planes and orbital CPBW platforms was solely because it’s good, wacky sci fi fun.


  • Nancy

    “The American Way of War” is for the ageing adolescents on The Hill and the Pentagon to waste obscene amounts of money on fancy new toys that don’t work, while the grunts in the field make do with whatever they can get for weapons as the military elites sit out in fat-assed comfort ‘way behind the lines … sometimes as far behind as the safety of their cushy offices in the US. This isn’t quite addressing this item, but I didn’t know whether to laugh or hurl at the comment by some general or other a month or so ago, who had recently arrived in Iraq – and those barbarian insurgents had actually fired GUNS at him while he was at his HQ, so that he and his staff actually had to TAKE COVER! Gracious! Hardship pay! And it’s effete loonies like this that command our unfortunate troops, headed by even more effete chickenhawks like Rumsfield, who’s never been involved in a war yet he didn’t participate in from well behind the dangers of the front lines, lest he wrinkle his suit.

  • If we cancel the civilian space program, it won’t stop the military from spending billions and billions on space based weapons systems.

    And despite its goal of space superiority, the American military cannot remain alone up there for very long. China and other nations will waste no time before they meet the challenge with weapons systems of their own.

    Our best defense, over the long term, is to continue promoting peaceful space exploration. This is one reason I continue to favor the International Space Station even though the project has not been managed anywhere near as efficiently or cost-effectively as I would have liked. At least it’s got a few engineers working on something in space other than weapons.

  • MCH

    Right on, Nancy, re Don Rumsfeld! And don’t forget draft dodgers Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz…

  • Bennett

    Right on Victor. Railing against this seemed to be a waste of time when I reported this story on Wednesday (Death Star U.S.A.).

    Starting an arms race to establish orbiting weapons systems? Hopefully this will be addressed before funding is extended.

  • Bennett

    BUT, I don’t mind someone else railing against this! I’m not particularly comfortable having ANY one country Dominating Space. I just didn’t have the time Wed AM to write anything coherent.

    So, kudos to davemoon.