Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 11, May 26 - June 8, 2001
India's National Magazine on
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The New Texas ranger and his guns

What is needed in the U.S. is a movement that questions not just one or another piece of ill-conceived hardware, but rather what all those weapons are for.


THE first few months of President George W. Bush Jr's administration remind one of the old Westerns, where the hero comes out with his guns blazing in all directions. Among the casualties are the Kyoto Protocol, the proposed Biological Weapons Convention, and U.S. relations with North Korea and China. The most prominent, of course, is the anticipated demise of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty due to the proposed National Missile Defence (NMD) programme.

While the NMD programme deserves all the attention and condemnation it is getting, it is only part of a larger evolving framework that guides U.S. security planning. Here is an outline of some of the features of this emerging pattern, and some of the motivations that lie beneath this framework. It is vital that the larger picture is understood to have any chance at all of forestalling the NMD and a possible resultant arms race.

This lack of appreciation of the wider framework has led to a preponderance, especially in the U.S., of technical criticism of the NMD system, focussing on its inability to hit targets and countermeasures. During the late 1960s, as the U.S. made its first plans to deploy an ABM defence system, Noam Chomsky argued that such technical critique, "is perhaps somewhat beside the point for two reasons. First, the ABM may be even more dangerous if it does work than if it does not. Hubert Humphrey recently pointed out that if the ABM 'does achieve an effective missile screen, it could release policy-makers from the restraints imposed by enemy second-strike capacity' - no small consideration in a country as devoted to international violence as ours. Second, the motivation for the ABM is largely political and economic, not technical at all. Insofar as the ABM programme serves as a subsidy to the electronics industry, it makes no difference whether it will work or not... And if the ABM is discarded, some equivalent monstrosity will no doubt take its place until some radical change in ordering of national priorities occurs."

This analysis is just as relevant today. A May 2000 report by William D. Hartung and Michelle Ciarrocca of the World Policy Institute points out that the three big weapons contractors, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon, "are looking to missile defence as a medium-to-long term source of revenues and profits to help them recover from recent management and technical problems that have slashed their stock prices in half and reduced their profit margins. In FY (fiscal year) 1998-99, the four largest missile defence contractors (the Big 3 plus TRW) shared over $2.2 billion in Pentagon research and development funding for research projects. These four firms dominate the missile defence programme at this point, accounting for 60 per cent of total missile defence contracts issued by the Pentagon in FY1998-99." The same three companies have contributed over $2 million to the 25 most hardcore NMD boosters in the Senate and spent $34 million on lobbying during 1997-98.

But these economic drivers are also matched by the vision of "full spectrum dominance" underlying current U.S. plans, outlined by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a recent policy statement titled Joint Vision 2020: "The label full spectrum dominance implies that U.S. forces are able to conduct prompt, sustained and synchronised operations with combinations of forces tailored to specific situations and with access to and freedom to operate in all domains - space, sea, land, air and information. Additionally, given the global nature of our interests and obligations, the United States must maintain its overseas presence forces and the ability to rapidly project power worldwide in order to achieve full spectrum dominance."

The means to achieve this ambitious agenda largely are being chosen by a generation of military officers and officials influenced significantly by the Vietnam war, when the image of "body bags" carrying dead soldiers was a rallying point for public protests. The U.S. has a global empire, but it has never fully justified the existence of this empire to its own people, or the need for their sons and daughters to die defending it. Subsequently, defence planners have focussed on projecting U.S. power with minimum risk to military personnel. While national missile defence gets the most attention, U.S. weapons researchers are pursuing an equally ambitious "theatre" missile defence programme, with a primary goal being the defence of forward-deployed forces all over the world. These missile defences are not intended to work in isolation; rather, they are part of a "defence in depth" design, also employing a growing array of long-range, stealthy, accurate weapons systems.

The sequence of measures aimed at neutralising "threats" start with hitting facilities for developing or manufacturing weapon systems in the early stages, well before they are deployed. This follows the history of plans to bomb Russian nuclear laboratories in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and wide ranging discussion about various options for annulling the Chinese nuclear bomb in the 1960s. What is new about current plans is the growing availability of conventional weapons that are capable because of their range and accuracy of destroying such facilities. One example is the 1998 attack on a purported chemical weapons plant, subsequently found to be a pharmaceuticals factory, in Sudan. The U.S. is, of course, not the only country to follow this strategy; Israel, for example, bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981.

The U.S. envisions attacking both production facilities and deployed weapons on the ground with a variety of "precision guided munitions". Intended to have the capability to attack hard targets, such conventional weapons range from the Joint Air to Surface Stand-off Missile ("an affordable long range, conventional air-to-surface, autonomous, precision guided, standoff cruise missile compatible with fighter and bomber aircraft able to attack a variety of fixed or relocatable targets") and an earth penetrator version of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile, to next generation "hypersonic" air- and sea- launched cruise missiles.

Efforts to develop conventional earth penetrating weapons are just one part of broader programmes to increase capabilities to destroy weapons of mass destruction and associated production facilities or command centers. These programmes include research aimed at making nuclear weapons more usable, particularly against targets hardened or buried to evade the growing capabilities of precision conventional weapons. The U.S. Department of Defence 1999 Defence Technology Area Plan, obtained by the Western States Legal Foundation (WSLF) through the Freedom of Information Act, stated that one current priority is "to provide national leaders with improved options by increasing the responsiveness of strategic forces and developing more discriminate options, as done most recently with the introduction of the B61-11 earth-penetrating weapons." The B61-11 is an earth-penetrating nuclear bomb with a variable yield, and is modified from an earlier design without underground explosive testing, using only the test and simulation capabilities of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) nuclear weapons laboratories. The same document shows plans to simulate low-yield nuclear attacks against tunnels and other underground targets, using conventional high explosives rather than an actual nuclear blast. (The full document can be found at

Those missiles which do make it off the ground are to be targeted by "boost phase" and "theatre missile" defence systems. Boost phase defences are intended to intercept missiles soon after launch during the phase when they are being boosted by rocket motors. Among the different boost phase defence schemes proposed, the airborne laser (ABL) seems to be the most favoured one. The Pentagon plans to equip seven Boeing 747 aircraft with ABL systems by 2006.

The term theatre missile defence (TMD) system arises because it is intended for use in the battle theatre. The push for TMD resulted largely from the use of the Patriot missile system during the Gulf war. The current incarnation of the missile is the PAC-3. Other TMD systems include the Navy Area Defence system, the Medium Extended Air Defence System, Theatre High Altitude Area Defence System and Navy Theatre Wide Defence. All these aim to intercept ballistic missiles further in their flight and downrange from the intended target.

It is within this context that U.S. National Missile Defence, and international responses to it, must be considered. Some ground-based TMD systems, if located sufficiently close to launch sites, could directly augment a national missile defence scheme. Concepts like the space-based laser, although considerably more speculative, theoretically could have global reach. And these multi-layered missile defences would back up not only a growing arsenal of long-range, increasingly powerful and precise conventional weapons but a constantly modernised nuclear arsenal which may in the future include precision, low-yield nuclear weapons. Not all pieces of this architecture are in place, but there are programmes in various stages of development to put in place all of these elements.

UNDERPINNING all these different systems is an increased reliance on space capabilities for intelligence purposes and further down the road for war-fighting. The Fiscal Year 2000 Air Force Science and Technology Plan (obtained by WSLF through the Freedom of Information Act) states that space "will increasingly become the essential high ground. Because of this, space superiority is essential to U.S. military strength." Here too the goal is to increase U.S. ability to project power globally while reducing the risk of U.S. military casualties, in this case by replacing vulnerable piloted aircraft and forward bases with the ultimate in action at a distance, weapons operating from or through space. For example, the U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) plans in the second decade of the 21st century to "Evolve Global, Conventional Strike." This includes developing long-range conventional missiles intended to destroy hardened targets and manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles capable of dropping a variety of sub-munitions either via missile or from next-generation reusable space vehicles similar to the space shuttle. The AFSPC Strategic Master Plan proposes "WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) storage sites, C2 (Command and Control) facilities, maritime forces and massed ground forces" as targets of such new weapons. Research and development supporting next-generation missile defence concepts like the space-based laser is also expected by military planners to provide the infrastructure and technology for directed energy weapons that can strike terrestrial targets from space.

The rationale for these new systems is to preserve - and enforce - a 'globalisation' path profitable to the U.S., one in which an increasingly inequitable world is viewed as inevitable. As the U.S. Space Command's Vision 2020 states: "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... Likewise, space forces will emerge to protect military and commercial national interests and investment in the space medium due to their increasing importance..."

According to Space Command, conflict will come because "although unlikely to be challenged by a global peer competitor, the United States will continue to be challenged regionally. The globalisation of the world economy will also continue with a widening between "haves" and "have-nots."

In a society always willing to throw technology at problems, and an economy that sees military dominance as not only affordable but profitable, it is imperative to move beyond technical critique and crude guns versus butter arguments. What is needed in the U.S. is a movement that questions not just one or another piece of ill-conceived hardware, but rather what all those weapons are for. Those living elsewhere, in some cases beset by military-industrial complexes of their own, must fight the slide into defensive nationalism in which militarism can thrive, a road that is all too easy to take when confronted by aggressive states, but which can lead only to disaster in a world bristling with civilisation-destroying weapons. And everywhere, there must be a real peace movement, willing to reach across boundaries to challenge the causes of war, and which makes both conceptual and organisational connections with movements for social and economic justice and for ecological balance.

Andrew Lichterman is Programme Director at the Western States Legal Foundation, a grassroots group based in Oakland, California, that works for the abolition of nuclear weapons (for more information see; M.V. Ramana is Research Associate, Programme on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, Princeton, United States.

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