Forty years ago, Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern drew our attention to the sex dripping down the leg of the Cold War. Dr. Strangelove opens with the erotic minuet of a bomber refueling in mid-flight, proceeds to drop enough innuendos to launch a thousand theses, and culminates in the iconic image of Slim Pickens straddling an H-Bomb in ecstasy, the detonation of which triggers a montage of multiple thermonuclear orgasms, each released to the lovesick lyrics of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again." Drip, drip, drip.
Twenty years later, feminist critics of Ronald Reagan's arms race picked up the Strangelovian thread, snickering in symposia and books at the homoerotic jargon infusing so much nuclear strategy. Leading the charge was the Australian freeze activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, whose 1984 Missile Envy described the arms race as the psychotic expression of sublimated phallic worship. Chunks of GDP, she noted, go to developing missiles that "release maximum payload" all over the other guy's most "sensitive" locations, after "entering and penetrating deep inside" his territory, catching him with his pants down if possible. Even defense is all about who has the hardest silos and the most mobile units. Crises require "stiff" resolve.
Another 20 years after Strangelove, U.S. war planners still don't get the joke. Exhibit A is the "Long-Rod Penetrator," which today's Pentagon longingly envisions for its future arsenal of space weapons. To work, 40 Long-Rod Penetrators must be launched into low-earth orbit at a cost of $8 billion, which would make the program the most expensive dildo collection in the world.
The system would involve blasting beams of tungsten or uranium into space, then releasing them high above their terrestrial targets. The idea--the $8 billion idea--is essentially to recreate the old Road Runner cartoon where an ACME crate comes whistling out of the sky, pounding Wile E. Cayote into the ground. Considering that the U.S. military already has cruise missiles, ICBMs and billion-dollar stealth bombers well suited to such tasks, dropping barbells from outer space isn't that far on the stupidity scale from Dr. Evil's plan in Austin Powers to destroy the world by triggering a massive volcano.
But space weapons like the Penetrator are no joke. The nation's political-military-defense-industry leadership sees outer space--currently a global commons populated by bits of flotsam and peaceful beeping satellites--as a future theater of conflict. It believes the U.S. must dominate this "ultimate high-ground" and establish "full-spectrum dominance." It is the logical extension of Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine. It's also a way to ballast defense stocks for decades to come.
Then there are space lasers--an idea that refused to die with Edward Teller--and something called the "Spaceplane," a hypersonic bomber that swoops in from outer space. Like the Penetrator, both are very expensive ways of duplicating existing U.S.-military capabilities. In the case of the former, there is also the debilitating fact that lasers attenuate upon atmosphere, i.e., they don't work when it's cloudy, and can be defended against with about an inch of common cork. The Pentagon will spend billions on this weapon; our enemies will defeat it with a case of cheap wine.
The Sec. of Defense, the John Holmes of space weapons, is especially horny for such toys. Before taking on his current job, the man his boss calls "Rumstud" chaired the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, whose 2001 report remains the foundational document for all space-weapons planning. Though the more fantastic elements are a ways off, Rumsfeld could oversee the breaking of the space barrier as early as next year, when the Missile Defense Agency plans to launch its first intercepts into orbit. By 2008, the MDA hopes to have an entire fleet of "kinetic energy kill vehicles" in place to strike targets in space.
To understand what an obscene waste of money all this is, look no further than the "missile defense" system now being deployed in Alaska.
The technology behind the Alaska system has failed four out of nine rigged tests, including an embarrassing debacle on Dec. 15, in which an "unknown anomaly" caused the entire system to shut down; the $85 million interceptor never even left the ground. This latest failure was so pathetic that it has temporarily delayed activation of the system, originally scheduled for 2005. But the farce barrels on. Boeing Co. remains the prime contractor for the ground-based "shield" and its future expansion into space. Other chubby fingers in the ever-expanding pie include usual suspects Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences Corp.
The line connecting missile defense and space weapons is direct, thick and no secret. Before chairing the Space Commission, Rumsfeld chaired its precursor, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, whose 1998 report recommended immediate U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and construction of the troubled land-based missile defense system currently costing us $10 billion a year. The symbiosis between missile defense and space weapons is also evident in the fact that former Missile Defense Agency director Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish is among Bush's leading candidates to head NASA.
Some experts believe the Pentagon doesn't care if the land-based stuff works or not. The real purpose of building the Alaska system, says Victoria Sampson of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, is an end-run around "the taboo on placing weapons in space." By calling the early stages of the grand plan a "land-based defensive system," Sampson thinks planners are trying to avoid public debate over the contentious issue of militarizing the heavens.
Not that there's anything warm or squishy about the world's overwhelming opposition to weaponizing space. China and Russia have been pressing hard for a treaty banning space weapons not because they fear space debris and radiation will obstruct our study of the cosmos--though it will--but because they don't want generals at U.S. Space Command blowing their satellites out of the sky like targets in some 80s video game. Satellites are sitting paper ducks compared to missiles or protected ground targets, and there's nothing easier than blitzing your opponent down below after "blinding" him high above.
Like all weapons systems, missile defense and space weapons are "defensive" or "offensive" depending on which side of the barrel you're looking down. Since missile "defense" has proved so easily defeated or tricked in battle simulations, the system makes much more sense as an offensive weapon against fixed-orbit targets--not missiles flying through space at the speed of sound. As for space-based weapons, U.S. officials sometimes cite the need to protect American satellites in urging their deployment, but there is currently no threat to U.S. satellites that can be countered from space. Space weapons and missile defense only make sense as part of an offensive strategy.
By starting an arms race in space, the U.S. will be putting a self-fulfilling prophecy into motion, and not for the first time. The entire nuclear era is the story of U.S. research spreading into other hands, as scientific knowledge tends to do. Suitcase nukes, to pick just one relevant example, resulted from a crash nuclear miniaturization program at MIT in the 70s. Anything we invent and put into play will eventually be arrayed against us. To stop the dynamic from starting, you need to give treaties a chance.
Scrapping the Pentagon's space dreams would no doubt break Boeing's heart, but there really are other things we could be doing with the money. We could start by securing the nation's ports, which remain the likeliest entry points for weapons of mass destruction. The 2005 homeland security bill contains just $150 million of the $400 million port officials say is needed to secure their facilities. Although the shortfall roughly equals the cost of a few rigged missile defense tests over the Pacific, the Bush administration holds that port cities and shipping companies are responsible for making up the difference. Think of it as a kind of test-run for the Long-Rod Penetrator. Call it, "Operation Bend Over, America."