National Missile Defense

Visions of a global police state

On May 1st, as people around the world celebrated International Worker’s Day and the coming of spring, George W. Bush, speaking at the National Defense University in Washington, conducted a ceremonial opening of a different sort of celebration. It was to be a celebration of capitalist triumph, of the exercise of power and the expansion of dominion. After wistfully reminiscing about the Cold War and the ultimate triumph of capitalism over the Soviet Union, Bush reassured his audience that the party was not over. Even today there are tyrants out there, “tyrants gripped by an implacable hatred of the United States of America”, tyrants who, like their Soviet predecessors, “hate democracy, freedom and individual liberty”.

The centerpiece of this new celebration was to be the development of a military system termed national missile defense, which was to be achieved by funneling billions of dollars to corporations of the US military-industrial complex-the beacons and bottom-line guarantors of freedom and democracy. The older triumph was achieved through a game of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction-weapons which both sides unfortunately had to withhold from using due to the uncontrollable magnitude of mutual destruction which would otherwise ensue. Now, through the technological regime of missile defense, that annoying limitation could finally be overcome, freeing the holders of power to exercise the full power which they hold. The same corporate entities whose hard work and Yankee ingenuity secured victory in that cold, static struggle, far from becoming Cold War dinosaurs, would be granted a new lease on life in this heroic bid to make weapons of mass destruction safe for democracy.

A brief history of missile defense

The concept of missile defense is not new. In the wake of World War II, the US Army conducted studies, code-named Thumper and Wizard, which suggested the possibility of using interceptor missiles or directed energy weapons to counter ballistic missiles such as the V-2 rockets which were deployed by Hitler’s forces against London in the closing days of their Aryan empire. In 1956, development of a complex anti-ballistic missile system known as “Nike-Zeus” was initiated, with Western Electric Corporation as the prime contractor. The system was to employ a variety of radar subsystems to guide an interceptor missile which would deliver a megaton-range nuclear explosive to destroy the reentry vehicle of an incoming ballistic missile at high altitude. After some initial successful tests, the system was deemed impractical and was never deployed. Development of other systems continued into the 1960′s, when “Sentinel”, an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system of limited capacity, went through initial stages of deployment under Johnson. This system was renamed “Safeguard” under Nixon and redesigned to defend US missile silos against a preemptive strike.

Overall, with the technology available at the time, ABM systems and development efforts proved costly, and their effectiveness remained highly uncertain. As enthusiasm waned, in 1972 the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was signed, which limited each side to two ABM installations with no more than 100 weapons each (reduced to one installation each in a 1974 amendment to the treaty). The Safeguard program continued on a more limited scale, and an ABM facility went into full operation 1 October 1975 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The next day, Congress voted to shut down the program, and the facility was decommissioned after less than 5 months of operation. While its operational track record may be underwhelming, the Safeguard program did make one significant achievement: namely, the transfer of 21 billion dollars to the military-industrial complex. This achievement-one that had been made with various related programs in the past and would be repeated in the future-embodied the establishment of a pattern crucial to the continued operation of the military-industrial complex and the world system which it safeguards.

Star Wars

In September 1982, Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb and the godfather of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (the US ruling class’s main advanced weapons research facility), visited Ronald Reagan in a private meeting arranged by right-wing business interests acting through the Heritage Foundation. Teller informed Reagan of a device he had been working on-a nuclear bomb-pumped X-ray laser-which he claimed could be deployed in space and used to shoot missiles out of the sky. In March of the following year, Reagan announced the launching of a comprehensive program that would protect free people from the Evil Empire by rendering nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete”. This complex program, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was to be centered around Teller’s X-ray laser system. As he had done in the past when it came to big-ticket research items, Teller and his team had deliberately falsified and exaggerated their technological prowess: after 12 years of effort, the proposed laser system proved unfeasible.

In the meanwhile, the Army had continued work on hit-to-kill (HTK) vehicles-kinetic energy weapons that would knock a missile out of the sky. After several unsuccessful tests of the system, built primarily by Lockheed, the developers, desperate for a show of success and for continued funding, resorted to rigging the test procedure to ensure the desired results. “The test achievements vividly demonstrate the undergirding technical genius resident in our society”, opined SDI Organization director James Abrahamson. He was right, in a sense: as long as the money keeps flowing, you’re in business.

In 1988, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory shifted focus to the development of what was called “Brilliant Pebbles” – a network of orbiting HTK interceptors. “Lasers may be useful someday, but meanwhile we must destroy missiles as David slew Goliath”, quipped Teller. This program picked up on an earlier project from the 60′s known as BAMBI (Ballistic Missile Boost Intercept), and was finally terminated in 1996 after failing every test.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the urgency and rationale for SDI was substantially weakened, and with the temporarily reduced US defense budget, the scope of the project was pared down. The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization was downgraded to Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and the emphasis of its work shifted to theater missile defense (TMD).

A boon for TMD came in Operation Desert Storm-the US-led attack against Iraq during which modified Patriot surface-to-air missiles were publicized as knocking down Iraqi Scuds missiles. The military establishment proudly issued claims of 100% effectiveness. An analysis by some MIT academicians of several celebratory videos showing the victorious feats of US military technology revealed that the footage which television viewers were led to believe showed successful intercepts was deceptive, since the Patriot missiles were designed to explode in mid-air, whether or not they hit or were near the intended interception target. In a subsequent report by the General Accounting Office, the effectiveness was downgraded to “unknown”. Subsequently, the development of missile defense-related programs continued quietly, receiving some $4 billion in annual funding.

The missile defense lobby continued its efforts, centered around the Center for Security Policy, a “non-partisan educational corporation” funded by weapons contractors and headed by former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney, which succeeded in getting missile defense inserted as a plank in Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America platform. A report issued in 1998 by the Rumsfeld Commission, which was tasked with identifying ballistic missile threats to the US, found such a danger emanating from “rogue states”. The following year, Clinton signed the National Missile Defense Act, mandating the deployment of a missile defense system.

Work continues on an NMD system based on Raytheon’s EKV (exoatmospheric kill vehicle), a variant of the HTK technology. Controversy has again surfaced regarding the veracity of the testing. “It’s not a defense of the United States. It’s a conspiracy to allow them to milk the government. They are creating jobs for themselves for life”, said former TRW engineer Nira Schwartz, who was promptly fired for her opinion. (TRW, along with Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon, are the primary contractors for the current NMD system).

Critiquing NMD

Over 100 billion dollars has been spent so far on missile defense programs-with nothing to show for it, some would say. Now, G. W. Bush is pushing for a 240 billion dollar NMD program. This effort, just as those which preceded it, has not been without its critics and detractors.

One popular form of critique of this conservative program heard within the liberal establishment is the “briefcase critique” (a.k.a. poor man’s nuke). The briefcase theory, while taking any missile defense system to be unworkable, holds that, even if by some miracle it did work, it still wouldn’t do any good, since supporters of rogue states or terrorist organizations would bring their nuclear bomb into the US inside a briefcase anyhow. This theory and its analogues and variants stand in the long line of the “boondoggle” critique tradition, which holds that, whether it be well-meaning or sinister, the military is above all hopelessly bumbling and incompetent.

This line of criticism is often combined with concerned calls to the effect that an NMD program would spark a new arms race, as other nations would feel the need to counter the advantages which an NMD shield would provide to the United States. It is not generally made clear by the advocates of these critiques why other nations would feel this need, when NMD itself is claimed to be unworkable and ineffective.

A third point of criticism deals with the corporate welfare angle. Given that an NMD project would channel large sums of money to weapons contractors, it is suggested that perhaps this is the main, if not only, motivation behind the project. This is often combined with concerns regarding the honesty of the contractors and strategists behind the project: since what they are after is personal gain (financial and/or psychological), they would naturally have a propensity to falsify the supposed threat and/or the capacity of their systems to deal with it.

These critiques all have some truth behind them, yet they seem more to circle around, rather than penetrate, the questions at hand.

The question of the feasibility or workability of an NMD program is a technically complex one, and more to the point is a question which cannot be answered without first delineating what the program is supposed to achieve. To cite a banal truth, what may not have been possible ten or twenty years ago may indeed be possible with today’s technology or become possible with future development. It is likewise obvious that what has and continues to fuel such development is the channeling of enormous funds and other resources for the purpose. In attempting to implement something organizationally and technologically complex and new, even with the most sincere intentions, one cannot know with certainty that any given line of effort will produce a specific result, or what the whole significance of that line of effort will be. Thus, to carry on such efforts, the ability to “bilk the taxpayers” becomes more of a necessity than a luxury. Being able to maintain momentum and dignity-which under capitalism above all means profit-in the organizations pursuing such efforts is likewise essential.

However, these facts of military-industrial necessities cannot be presented to the public directly, as doing so could lead to a disclosure of the full range of purposes behind the efforts. To put it another way, if the potential (and inevitable) critics knew exactly what they were criticizing, their criticism could become penetrating and effective, thereby seriously undermining the efforts in question. But, lacking an effective critique capable of changing the object of its criticism, people collectively adapt to the situation by channeling their criticism and dissipating their forebodings to a straw bogeyman. The image of the terrifying ugliness of a society that even partially finds the development and deployment of systems of world-wide annihilation necessary and essential to its continued existence and the promotion of its moral values is subsumed in the comic-book pastel colors of a fumbling and bumbling, ever so slightly risqué, king-with-no-clothes type figure.

Though it may occasionally appear to protest in proud and righteous indignation against this infringement on its dignity, this figure of the military-industrial complex of technofascist domination is in truth quite happy with having been cast in this clownish role-a role which it carefully helped to craft through its subordinates in the mind-control industry. For this typecasting effectively relegates any fundamental criticism of its activities that may be presented in the public sphere to the realm of fringe paranoiacs, thereby neutralizing it.

In the end, the difference between a solid technical system that protects “the lives of Americans” and an ill-conceived boondoggle, between hard-earned profits for the valiant defenders of freedom and corporate welfare, is a semantic subtlety. Thus, for instance, some liberal critics of NMD have sought to bolster their position by announcing how NMD does not live up to free-market discipline (“If this program were in the corporate world, everyone associated with it would be fired”, states political columnist Molly Ivins). Yet the dynamic of the “corporate world”-in today’s New Economy more than ever-reveals precisely the opposite of what such statements as the above seem to imply: so long as you manage, by hook or by crook, to keep the cash flowing in and the stock value (actual or anticipated) up, you are golden. And if you keep it up long enough, eventually you will have something real, whether as a fruit of your own work or through absorption of others’ work on the capital markets. The market value of your stock is, however, a nominal value, defined solely in terms of market relations: thus, some ultimately disastrous consequence in the future, even if it is already more or less known, need not nullify your current stock value, any more than, say, the cataclysmic consequences of pollution nullify the market value of polluting enterprises. In this context, what protects the lives of Americans is whatever the relevant Americans believe protects the lives of Americans. The relevant Americans in this case are the institutionalized military – industrial – corporate – governmental – technocratic complex-what some call the ruling class.

Seen in this light, the situation may indeed appear somewhat surreal. It is telling in this regard to note that the cited facts and statements presented here have hardly been kept secret-many have appeared in prominent establishment organs such as the New York Times. Also published in said organ was a 1987 Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum stating “The Pentagon should improve and update deception plans covering the missile defense program’s costs and abilities”. The intended overt effect of such publications is to verify people’s suspicions by substantiating the limited liberal critiques-the “yes, there was indeed some wrongdoing, but shucks…” type of thing. However, corroborating and thus rationalizing such suspicions in such a context produces the covert effect of de-rationalizing any substantive criticism which may go beyond the narrow confines of the corroborated suspicions and which could challenge the existing institutions and hierarchies of power.

The publication of such critiques thus serves the purpose of facilitating a psychological catharsis, releasing and thus effectively draining people’s pent-up negative (critical) energy, which becomes subsumed in a dialogue that, in the end, can do no more than reaffirm the rightness and inevitability of the target of its critique. To put it another way: feeling so much better now from the catharsis process, the reader can more or less go back to normal-”normal” being in this case an ultimate acceptance of the existing reality of capitalist power relations of hierarchical domination and exploitation, both in the general sense and in the specific context in question (in this case, NMD).

It should be emphasized here that the problem with such critiques as the above is not so much their intellectual or analytical (in)adequacy per se, nor their truth value, but rather their susceptibility or conduciveness to psychological warfare. This entails, among other things, an inability to consistently maintain the insights gained and apply them in one’s life activity. The thinking becomes compartmentalized into atomistic micrologies, and as such can be easily channeled into a controlled release. Having been shat out (cathartically discharged), the critical energy and insight is dissipated and turns to shit. Politically, for many people, this fecal character takes the form of the operational belief that there is no problem caused by Republicans that cannot be remedied by Democrats. This can be observed in the case of NMD, which has been portrayed and understood by many people as yet another crazed right-wing Republican militarism. Now, simply exposing such people to the fact that, e.g., NMD was signed into law by a popular beloved Democrat, would not generally shake them of their conviction. They likely have already been apprised of such facts, but are operationally unable to remember or process them. The image of the stupid American, insofar as there is some relative truth in it, is not due to a genetic defect, but is rather the result of exposure to high concentrations of these psychological warfare operations, the global end point of which is the eradication of objectivity.

The line of argument that presents the military as bumbling idiots and revels in pronouncements of Bush’s stupidity in the end constitutes no more than a defeatist psychology, an expression of an ill-conceived vain wish to resist on one hand what one knows on the other hand to be all too inevitable. In a way, the advocates of this critique of NMD seek to broach the positivistic divide, to go beyond assertions that NMD is a bad move to a critical understanding that it is part of a bad game. However, under the immense pressure of existing reality, they fail to do so, thereby reverting ultimately to a celebration of the very world system which continues to bring forth the objects of their critique.

Rogue states

The debate over NMD as a whole shows little coherence, with various parties claiming whatever suits their particular political angle and interests. But one point which nearly all arguments seem to accept is the concept of the rogue state. The rogue state (now renamed “state of concern”) is the entity which poses the threat which NMD is to defend against. The questions of when, how and why it will pose a threat and what is the best way to deal with it are widely disputed.

The primary stated task of the currently proposed NMD system is to defend against a small number of ballistic missiles launched by a rogue state. It has been noted in this connection that a rogue who has gone to the trouble of developing a ballistic missile would certainly develop countermeasures against NMD (such as having the missile release multiple decoy balloons, one of which would contain the warhead). One of the elements of the Pentagon deception strategy referred to above is downplaying the potential significance of such countermeasures, such as by eliminating or minimizing the number and effectiveness of countermeasures used during testing. This has the overt effect of making the NMD system look better and thus easing the obtaining of further funding, etc. At the same time, it covertly suggests that, since we went to all this trouble to misrepresent how well our NMD system can deal with a rogue state’s missile and all, that must indeed be the whole purpose of the system-thereby obscuring and shifting attention away from what that purpose may really be, while simultaneously providing a locus for people’s critical apprehensions and concerns to be dissipated through the external confirmation of their validity. The concerned liberal can find release for his concerns that there is something bad about NMD in the confirmation that there is indeed something bad about it-it can’t deal with countermeasures, or barring that, that the warhead is really in a briefcase-thus freeing himself from the need to delve deeper into the matter. For what is deeper is darker.

While an NMD system is a theoretically possible way to counter a rogue missile, given the diplomatic, political, financial and technical difficulties involved in its implementation, as well as the uncertainty of its performance, it would hardly be the most effective or plausible way to achieve such a task. Traditional methods such as diplomatically cajoling or economically incentivizing the rogue, or else delivering a preemptive strike against his facility, would be more likely employed for such a purpose. Thus, in this respect as well, the rogue state theory appears implausible as a substantive explanation for NMD.

The rogue state is more sensibly interpreted as functioning primarily as a conceptual device to provide some ground for rationalizing NMD, just as it has been used for rationalizing and justifying other unsavory aspects of US policy. Thus, arguments for and against NMD dealing with the extent of such states’ roguishness are essentially no different than the boondoggle theory analyzed above: they ultimately can only justify and rationalize the object of their critique.

Along the lines of the briefcase critique, it has furthermore been suggested that rogue states, if they wanted to deliver a weapon of mass destruction, would not use a missile even if they had one, since that would reveal where it came from and thus subject the rogue state to annihilation by the US. This line of reasoning assumes that rogue states or the despots who rule them are essentially rational in their behavior. While such an assumption is indeed borne out by the facts, it does not seem to jibe well with the concept of a rogue state, which is often understood as being run by a crazed evil tyrant gripped by an implacable hatred of the United States.

The crazed, tyrannical, implacable, irrational character of the rogue state on one hand and a pattern of rational behavior on the other suggests that the concept may have a double meaning. It has been noted that a person’s self-identity-what somebody means by “I”-is not necessarily coterminous with the entire psychical entity making up the person. Certain aspects of one’s personality, thoughts and behaviors, in particular those aspects deemed bad, may be externalized and effectively understood as being the property of something or someone else, of another entity distinct from “me” (extreme cases of this are observed in schizophrenia). In this way, it is possible that the concept of the rogue state, while being a designation for certain insubordinate third-world countries such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea, at the same time functions as a sort of geopolitical alter-ego of the United States, allowing the United States to externalize certain aspects of its activity and reinterpret them as being done (caused) by somebody else. This analysis would seem to agree with the widely observed situation whereby the United States unreservedly continues to view itself as good and righteous, despite the fact that it has and continues to unreservedly commit acts which in themselves it proclaims to be evil.

The rogue state, or some such other rogue entity, emerges as a shadow to the glory of the democratic capitalist order, revealing the dark chaos within that order. The holders of power seek to silence the rogue, to deny any validity or objectivity to his viewpoint. Only the technological systems of surveillance deployed by the global rulers of capitalism must be allowed to speak. And if they say ballistic missile attack, then democracy itself has spoken: let the annihilation begin.

Military-industrial globalization

NMD is a technologically complex weapons system consisting of many subcomponents deployed around the world as well as in space. As such, it is by nature a global system. Prior to giving his May 1st missile defense speech (which never mentioned the word national), the Bush administration sent out teams around the world in a major marketing effort to sell the US NMD to other world leaders. Despite accusations of US unilateralism and reports of steadfast opposition from around the world, there is little ground to conclude that other national ruling classes are fundamentally opposed to the NMD concept. A better interpretation would be to say they are playing hard-to-get in hopes of getting a better deal.

There is little question that NMD is going to be expensive, no doubt eventually exceeding the already high cost estimates. To spread out these costs, the US ruling class wishes to get support from other national ruling classes. In conjunction with this, there have already been proposals to rename the system Allied Missile Defense (AMD), which right-wing columnist William Safire has argued would be a preferable alternative to the European Rapid Reaction Force (a new Western European transnational military force, the formation of which was spurred by European concerns over US domination as experienced in the attack on Yugoslavia, during which the US used its satellite reconnaissance superiority to call all the shots while keeping its European “junior partners” in the dark).

The calls to withdraw from or amend the 1972 ABM treaty that stands in the way of the proposed NMD system, which has evoked concern in some circles (“it will ignite a new arms race”), are not an isolated effort intended solely to promote NMD, but rather form part of a greater shift toward military globalization. Thus, for instance, the Defense Science Board Task Force on Globalization and Security, a division of the Department of Defense, asserting that “globalization is largely irresistible”, has found traditional arms control regimes to be no longer effective, and instead has advocated the need for “a new approach to maintaining military dominance” based on “transnational defense industrial collaboration and integration” through a “fully globalized commercial sector”. Such “deregulation” of the arms industry would allow US weapons manufacturers to merge with and absorb their national rivals and freely deliver armaments around the globe in a manner consistent with free-market profit maximization. In this context, accusations of profit-seeking vs. concern for US national security interests become largely moot: US national security interests become institutionally intertwined with continued profits and expanding markets for US military-industry corporations. Consequently, such accusations can be freely published in the New York Times, as they no longer serve as anything more than harmless diversions.

Warnings of a new arms race are likewise deceiving, in that they shift critical attention away from-and thus affirm-the reality of the existing arms race. Across the world, in this “age of peace and prosperity”, there are calls being issued and efforts made towards increased militarization, while wars continue to rage on an unprecedented scale. Thus, more so than sparking a new arms race, development of the NMD system will serve as a justification for continuing the existing and already increasing trend of militarization. This is of course a desirable outcome for the system’s proponents in the ruling class, one which would support their quest for globalized systems of power relations that favor their continued domination. In the meanwhile, to diffuse apprehensions of a new arms race, Bush has announced unilateral arms reductions to be linked with NMD, following a strategy outlined by the Heritage Foundation, which suggests that “BMD proponents should begin to stress nuclear disarmament as a new end point” and thereby “disarm BMD opponents by stealing their language and cause”.

Already, would-be competitors to the US project have emerged, with Russian President V. Putin making an offer last year of a joint Russian-European missile defense system in an effort to preempt and derail any future US proposals. Russia possesses a limited operational missile defense system as provided under the ABM Treaty. The response by the Bush administration has been to propose a US-Russian collaboration in the sphere of missile defense, a theme which was a central topic of Bush’s meeting with Putin this June. The initial proposal, echoing a similar offer made 15 years ago by Reagan during the early stages of SDI, has been received rather unenthusiastically. Historically, Russia has been loath to rely on foreign technology for its defense-related needs, and will no doubt demand substantial concessions if it is to go along with this proposal. The proposal also included a US offer to purchase relatively obsolete Russian S-300 missiles.

Continued in Part II