Jonathan Schell on Crossing Nuclear Thresholds

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Call it Star Wars, parts VII-XXII; but last week, just as Revenge of the Sith was opening galaxy-wide — multiplexes on Tatooine alone were expected to pull in billions — reporter Tim Weiner revealed on the front page of the New York Times that a new presidential directive will soon essentially green-light the future U.S. militarization of space. (When, in December 2001, the administration withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which forbade the weaponization of space, it opened the way for exactly the kind of Pentagon R&D that now threatens to come to mutant fruition in the heavens.) Just three days before Weiner’s piece appeared, military analyst William Arkin reported in the Washington Post that “[e]arly last summer, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved a top secret ‘Interim Global Strike Alert Order,'” preparing the way for devastating attacks against hostile powers developing weapons of mass destruction, air strikes that could be carried out more or less on demand anywhere on the planet and, if so desired, included a “nuclear option.”

These two actions don’t represent separate worlds of planning. One of the imagined future weapons for Rumsfeld’s “global strike” force, for instance, turns out to be a CAV (Common Aero Vehicle) which, from space, could theoretically hit any target on Earth with a massive dose of conventional munitions on half an hour’s notice. Of this weapon, the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus wrote, “The first-generation CAV, expected to be ready by 2010, will have ‘an incredible capability to provide the warfighter with a global reach capability against high payoff targets,’ Gen. Lance W. Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, told the House Armed Services Committee The system could, Lord said, ‘deliver a conventional payload precisely on target within minutes of a valid command and control release order.'”

Such “global strike” space weaponry, while not (yet) nuclearized, would not be far off in impact. For instance, according to Weiner, one such weapon, Hypervelocity Rod Bundles (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.” In this way, the boundaries between the previously almost unusable nuclear option and more conventional war-fighting options are slowly — and quite consciously — being blurred by the Bush administration.

Let’s put a label on these developments: Proliferation. In space as on Earth, the Bush strategists have an almost primal urge to cross strategic and weapons barriers and thresholds of all sorts, and head into uncharted territory; or, as an old TV space opera used to put it, “boldly to go where no man has gone before.” (On Star Trek, though, the voyages of the USS Enterprise were, at least theoretically, peaceful in nature, and the announcement of the next destination didn’t automatically end with an explosion.)

Perhaps there’s another label that might capture even better the administration’s primal global urge — in this case, a label much beloved by the Air Force Space Command, those “Guardians of the High Frontier” (as they so flatteringly like to call themselves): “dominance” or “space superiority.” (“Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny,” [Space Command’s General Lord] told an Air Force conference in September. “Space superiority is our day-to-day mission. Space supremacy is our vision for the future.”) In the old Army Air Corps anthem, airmen sang of taking off “into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun”; now I suppose it should be “the wild, black yonder.”

There has been much on-line controversy lately about whether the new Star Wars movie is an attack on the Bush administration. One thing can certainly be said: Where Star Wars went long ago, Bush administration fantasies are now heading. After all, what is a CAV, but a little “Death Star,” that terrible, planet-destroying instrument of the on-screen Evil Empire. As Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information pointed out in a recent article, “[O]rbiting ‘death stars’ to attack ground targets are being considered. Pete Teets, the former acting secretary of the U.S. Air Force has said: ‘We haven’t reached the point of strafing and bombing from space – nonetheless, we are thinking about those possibilities.'”

In fact, “thinking” turns out to be something of a euphemism, given that the first tests of parts of the CAV program are to be carried out later this year. Of course, the Bush high-frontiersmen and the high-frontiersmen of the military-industrial complex (into which so many space-based tax dollars are already flowing) are just dying to test new generations of threshold-busting weapons (can’t wait!). And yet, most of these bizarre weapons are technologically daunting and deficit-bustingly expensive. As Weiner points out: “Richard Garwin, widely regarded as a dean of American weapons science, and three colleagues wrote in the March issue of IEEE Spectrum, the professional journal of electric engineering, that ‘a space-based laser would cost $100 million per target, compared with $600,000 for a Tomahawk missile.'”

In addition, based on past history, such futuristic dream-weaponry is likely to be about as successful as our $100 billion (so far) Star Wars anti-missile system which has proved incapable of intercepting anything smaller than the Queen Mary or faster than a tractor; and — irony of ironies — the decision to test, and then try to deploy, such systems is likely not only to start a space arms race, but to make us all (and the satellites we now depend on for so much) far more vulnerable than at present. According to Demetri Sevastopulo of the British Financial Times, the Russian answer to the news in the New York Times piece was instantaneous and grim: “Russia would consider using force if necessary to respond if the US put a combat weapon into space, according to a senior Russian official.”

Space domination — meaning war-fighting in space — is a form of Earthly madness. But the path of proliferation, once started down has its own mad logic. Bush’s top officials have been stuck on global dominance since they took power. Dominance has just turned out to be a little harder to come by on Earth than advertised but, ah, space All those boys who grew up on sci-fi movies and moon shots, now have their moment. And a boy can always dream, can’t he?

The only problem is that Bush’s dreamers, having swallowed their inside-the-beltway global-power fantasies whole, turn out to play the dominance game like the global klutzes they are. Admittedly, they’ve been in their Darth Vader outfits breathing hard for quite a while — every day another threat (and if John Bolton makes it to the UN, change that to a threat a second) — but they seem to lack the power effectively to demand a pizza delivery for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

None of this makes what they’re doing any less dangerous. As Jonathan Schell points out below (in his latest “Letter from Ground Zero” in the new issue of the Nation magazine), the new “global strike” plans revealed by Arkin represent part of a revolution in what passes for nuclear policy-making in this country.

So, proliferation planet? Sure, that’s on the way. Now, though, we’re intent on proliferating in the heavens as on Earth. Think of it as a package deal. Tom

A Revolution in American Nuclear Policy
By Jonathan Schell

A metaphorical “nuclear option” — the cutoff of debate in the Senate on judicial nominees — has just been defused, but a literal nuclear option, called “global strike,” has been created in its place. In a shocking innovation in American nuclear policy, recently disclosed in the Washington Post by military analyst William Arkin, the administration has created and placed on continuous high alert a force whereby the President can launch a pinpoint strike, including a nuclear strike, anywhere on earth with a few hours’ notice. The senatorial “nuclear option” was covered extensively, but somehow this actual nuclear option — a “full-spectrum” capability (in the words of the presidential order) with “precision kinetic (nuclear and conventional) and non-kinetic (elements of space and information operations)” — was almost entirely ignored.

The order to enable the force, Arkin writes, was given by George W. Bush in January 2003. In July 2004, Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated to Adm. James Ellis Jr., then-commander of Stratcom, “the President charged you to ‘be ready to strike at any moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world’ [and] that’s exactly what you’ve done.” And last fall, Lieut. Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the 8th Air Force, stated, “We have the capacity to plan and execute global strikes.”

These actions make operational a revolution in US nuclear policy. It was foreshadowed by the Nuclear Posture Review Report of 2002, also widely ignored, which announced nuclear targeting of, among others, China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya. The review also recommended new facilities for the manufacture of nuclear bombs and the study of an array of new delivery vehicles, including a new ICBM in 2020, a new submarine-launched ballistic missile in 2029, and a new heavy bomber in 2040. The review, in turn, grew out of Bush’s broader new military strategy of pre-emptive war, articulated in the 2002 White House document, the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, which states, “We cannot let our enemies strike first.” The extraordinary ambition of the Bush policy is suggested by a comment made in a Senate hearing in April by Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, who explained that the Defense Secretary wanted “bunker buster” nuclear bombs because “it is unwise for there to be anything that’s beyond the reach of US power.”

The incorporation of nuclear weapons into the global strike option, casting a new shadow of nuclear danger over the entire planet, raises fundamental questions. Perhaps the most important is why the United States, which now possesses the strongest conventional military forces in the world, feels the need to add to them a new global nuclear threat. The mystery deepens when you reflect that nothing could be more calculated to goad other nations into nuclear proliferation. Could it be that the United States, now routinely called the greatest empire since Rome, simply feels the need to assert its dominance in the nuclear sphere?

History suggests a different explanation. In the past, reliance on nuclear arms has in fact varied inversely with reliance on conventional arms. In the very first weeks of the nuclear age, when the American public was demanding demobilization of US forces in Europe after World War II, the U.S. monopoly on the bomb gave it the confidence to adopt a bold stance in postwar negotiations with the Soviet Union over Europe. The practice of offsetting conventional weakness with nuclear strength was soon embodied in the policy of “first use” of nuclear weapons, which has remained in effect to this day. The threat of first use under the auspices of the global strike option is indeed the latest incarnation of a policy born at that time.

This compensatory role for nuclear weapons emerged in a new context when, after the protracted, unpopular conventional war in Korea, President Eisenhower adopted the doctrine of nuclear “massive retaliation,” intended to prevent limited Communist challenges from ever arising. And it was in reaction to the imbalance between local “peripheral” threats and the world-menacing “massive” nuclear threats designed to contain them that, in the Kennedy years, the pendulum swung back in the direction of conventional arms and a theory of “limited war” to go with them. Meanwhile, nuclear arms were officially assigned the more restricted role of deterring attacks by other nuclear weapons — the posture of “mutual assured destruction.”

Today, though the Cold War is over, the riddle of the relationship between nuclear and conventional force still vexes official minds. Once again, the United States has assigned itself global ambitions. (Then it was containing Communism, now it is stopping “terrorism” and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.) Once again, the United States is fighting a limited war — the war in Iraq — and other limited wars are under discussion (against Iran, North Korea, Syria, etc.). And once again, nuclear arms appear to offer an all too tempting alternative. Arkin comments that a prime virtue of the global strike option in the eyes of the Pentagon is that it requires no “boots on the ground.” And Everett Dolman, a professor at the Air Force School at Maxwell Air Force Base, recently commented to the San Francisco Chronicle that without space weaponry, “we’d face a Vietnam-style buildup if we wanted to remain a force in the world.”

For just as in the 1950s, the boots on the ground are running low. The global New Rome turns out to have exhausted its conventional power holding down just one country, Iraq. But the 2000s are not the 1950s. Eisenhower’s overall goal was mainly defensive. He wanted no war, nuclear or conventional, and never came close to ordering a nuclear strike. By contrast, Bush’s policy of preventive war is inherently activist and aggressive: The global strike option is not only for
deterrence; it is for use.

A clash between the triumphal rhetoric of global domination and the sordid reality of failure in practice lies ahead. The Senate, on the brink of its metaphorical Armageddon, backed down. Would the President, facing defeat of his policies somewhere in the world, do likewise? Or might he actually reach for his nuclear option?

Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World, is the Nation Institute’s Harold Willens Peace Fellow. The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.

Copyright 2005 Jonathan Schell

This article will appear in the forthcoming issue of The Nation Magazine.