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William Hartung, The Future of Techno-War

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Uh… gulp… you thought it was bad when that experienced pilot ejected from one of the Air Force’s hottest “new” planes, the F-35 combat fighter, near — no, not China or somewhere in the Middle East — but Charleston, South Carolina. The plane then flew on its own for another 60 miles before crashing into an empty field. And that was without an enemy in sight.

Perhaps we should just be happy that an F-35 ever even made it into the air, given its endless problems in these years. After all, as Dan Grazier of the Center for Defense Information wrote, it’s now “the largest and most expensive weapons program in history.” Yet when it comes to something as significant as “mission availability,” according to the Congressional Budget Office, only about 26% of all F-35s, each of which now costs an estimated $80 million to produce and $44,000 an hour to fly, are available at any moment. Not exactly thrilling, all in all.

As TomDispatch regular and Pentagon expert William Hartung makes clear today, if that’s what happens with the Air Force’s least intelligent fighter plane, what should we expect of its just arriving artificial-intelligence-driven fleet of drones or “robot wingmen” that could be deployed, as he suggests, in a future war with China? Given the history of the U.S. military’s three-decade-old drone warfare program, which caused such havoc among civilian populations during this country’s Global War on Terror, what could the future hold in store? After all, non-AI drones were “roughly thirty times more likely to result in a civilian fatality than an airstrike by a manned aircraft.” And remember, that fleet of aircraft was still, at least officially, run by human intelligence, not the artificial variety. Who knows what may occur when such drones, freed from the human brain, are let loose on this planet? While you’re considering that possibility, let Hartung take you on a quick flight to the Pentagon and then to China. Tom

AI Goes to War

Will the Pentagon’s Techno-Fantasies Pave the Way for War with China?

On August 28th, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks chose the occasion of a three-day conference organized by the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), the arms industry’s biggest trade group, to announce the “Replicator Initiative.” Among other things, it would involve producing “swarms of drones” that could hit thousands of targets in China on short notice. Call it the full-scale launching of techno-war.

Her speech to the assembled arms makers was yet another sign that the military-industrial complex (MIC) President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about more than 60 years ago is still alive, all too well, and taking a new turn. Call it the MIC for the digital age.

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Engelhardt, Whose Planet Are We On?

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[Note from Tom: Ariel Dorfman and I have a long history together. I first came across his work when I devoured How to Read Donald Duck, which he and Armand Mattelart wrote in Salvador Allende’s democratic, socialist Chile. The New England Free Press, where I was working as a printer, then distributed it as part of its political literature program.  (After General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup overthrew Allende and sent Dorfman into exile, the Chilean military impounded many copies of it, burning some of them and throwing others in the ocean.) I first met Ariel in the early 1980s when I was an editor at Pantheon Books and published his pop-cultural critique of so many of the symbolic toys, books, and radio and TV shows of my own childhood, The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. Then I did Widows, his classic novel about the disappeared (in World-War-II-era Greece, though his own Chile was there by implication). In this century, I began publishing pieces of his at TomDispatch.

Only recently, I read his new… well, I don’t quite know what to call it… novel? In it, he’s the central character and his life and events in Chile (as well as the question of how Salvador Allende died and how, on an ever more embattled planet, all of us may die) are at the heart of everything. It’s both a unique and uniquely gripping book, a mix of memoir and fiction of a sort I’ve never seen before. Its title, no less gripping, is The Suicide Museum and its cover illustration is a stunning giant woodpecker. I won’t tell you more. I’ll just say that I read every one of its more than 600 pages with fascination and that I think you should get your hands on it, too. Note that, in my 22 years at TomDispatch, I’ve never put up a recommendation like this with a piece not written by the book’s author but by me, though on a subject that’s all too central to The Suicide Museum. Tom]

The Slow-Motion Equivalent of a Nuclear War?

A “New Cold War” on an Ever-Hotter Planet

Tell me, what planet are we actually on? All these decades later, are we really involved in a "second" or "new" Cold War? It's certainly true that, as late as the 1980s, the superpowers (or so they then liked to think of themselves), the United States and the Soviet Union, were still engaged in just such a Cold War, something that might have seemed almost positive at the time. After all, a "hot" one could have involved the use of the planet's two great nuclear arsenals and the potential obliteration of just about everything.

But today? In case you haven't noticed, the phrase "new Cold War" or "second Cold War" has indeed crept into our media vocabulary. (Check it out at Wikipedia.) Admittedly, unlike John F. Kennedy, Joe Biden has not actually spoken about bearing "the burden of a long, twilight struggle." Still, the actions of his foreign policy crew -- in spirit, like the president, distinctly old Cold Warriors -- have helped make the very idea that we're in a new version of just such a conflict part of everyday media chatter.

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Andrea Mazzarino, Nuclear Deterrence, Really?

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Here’s something strange about our all-too-nuclearized planet: in my youth during the 1950s and early 1960s, the possibility of an obliterating nuclear war played a significant role in our everyday nightmares. We schoolkids then regularly engaged in “duck and cover” drills, diving under our desks to protect ourselves from a possible nuclear attack on New York City.  (You might, of course, ask how protective our modest-sized metal-and-wooden desks would have been, if our city had indeed experienced a worse-than-Hiroshima event.) We kids were also urged to consider the advice of Bert the Turtle, a character in a cartoon we were shown at school. After all, he “never got hurt because he knew just what we all must do: he ducked and covered!” In those years, New York was, in fact, filled with public “fallout shelters” and I still remember the yellow symbol for them that you could see as you walked the streets of the city.

Similarly, popular culture was then remarkably saturated with fantasies of nuclear annihilation.  If you doubt me, just get a copy of Walter Miller, Jr.’s 1959 near-world-ending novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (still a striking read today) or check out that earliest of mutant nuclear monster movies, Them!, about giant irradiated ants let loose in Los Angeles.  And so it went in those years when it came to imagining the possibility of a world-ending nuclear event.

And yet consider this the irony of all ironies: for most of the 1950s, while the United States could have delivered a devastating nuclear Armageddon to the Soviet Union and the rest of the then-communist world, the Russians, though they had indeed developed atomic weapons, didn’t yet have the ability to deliver them here by plane or missile. Hence, the fears that the Soviets might somehow smuggle a bomb into the country. Hence also, the particular terror when the Soviets placed such weaponry in Cuba in 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis commenced.

Today, as TomDispatch regular Andrea Mazzarino reminds us, not just two but nine countries are nuclear-armed and the possibility of a nuclear war has increased accordingly. In addition, we now know that even a conflict in which the U.S. played no part could create a “nuclear winter” that would devastate this country, too. And yet, despite the recent hit movie Oppenheimer, nuclear fears and fantasies are now largely in absentia. Bert, it seems, ducked, covered, and never came up again. So, I think it’s particularly useful at this moment for Mazzarino to remind us that, 78 years after those two nuclear bombs destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s a small miracle that another such weapon hasn’t again been used in war and that, whatever the other dangers on this planet, we should never take our eyes off the nuclear one. Tom

At the Brink?

Contemplating the Unimaginable Costs of a Nuclear War

Despite Russian hints about the use of nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine, consider it strange -- amid other world-endangering possibilities -- how little attention nuclear destruction gets anymore. And that's despite the fact that there are now nine (yes, nine!) nuclear powers on this planet, ranging from the United States, Russia, and China to Israel and North Korea. 

Still, at some point in your life, you’ve probably heard about the theory of "nuclear deterrence" embraced by so many in our military and those of other major powers globally. The idea is that nuclear weapons actually keep us all "safe" by their mere presence in the hands of those powers. According to such thinking, their existence restrains the leaders of such countries from directly making war on each other for fear of setting off a world-ending nuclear conflict. And in that context, yes, the U.S. military spends tens of billions of dollars annually on the upkeep of some 5,428 nuclear weapons of every sort and their delivery systems to keep us safe. Worse yet, it plans to "invest" upwards of two trillion dollars more "modernizing" that arsenal in the coming decades.

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