William Astore, Coming Down to Earth

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[Note for Tomdispatch Readers: Think of this dispatch, in TV terms, as counterprograming. While much of America sits, couch- and Earth-bound, checking out the latest 24/7 bout of Democratic primary coverage, Tomdispatch soars into the heavens on the wings of historian and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William J. Astore. No couch-potatoes we. And while I’m at it, let me recommend a website. For those of you interested in keeping up with the latest developments in techno-war, there is only one place to go: Wired Magazine’s Danger Room run by Noah Shachtman.]

Once upon a time, when it came to weaponry in space, “the final frontier” was left largely to the USS Enterprise and early Trekkie cultists (myself among them). Ever since the Reagan era, however, R&D for all sorts of exotic space weaponry to be employed against “enemy” satellites or used against enemies on Earth, has been on the drawing boards, in development, and in the dreams of aerospace enthusiasts.

We’ve just passed the 25th anniversary of President Reagan’s March 23, 1983 “Star Wars” moment, when he tacked three unforgettable paragraphs onto a speech calling for greater defense spending against the Soviet threat. He challenged the “scientific community” to undertake a vast research and development effort to create an “impermeable” antimissile shield in space that would render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” While the purest of presidential fantasies in itself, it marked the beginning of a quarter-century long race to weaponize space, to take what the Air Force regularly refers to today as “the high ground.”

Now, of course, we have an Air Force Space Command and a President who has signed a National Space Policy “that rejects future arms-control agreements that might limit U.S. flexibility in space and asserts a right to deny access to space to anyone ‘hostile to U.S. interests.'” Though you’ll find many explanations for the urge to develop space weaponry and dominate that high ground, it’s hard not to believe that a set of deep fantasies aren’t involved. Weaponizing space, after all, combines the urge to take that “frontier” (even if it’s a vacuum and there are no redskins); the urge to be or play God — to embrace, that is, the delusion that what you can’t control from close up, street by street, or village by village, you can somehow control from unbelievably far away; and perhaps the urge to be young and male. (Space wars! Yippee! I saw it in the movies!) Of course, as with so much else in our militarized world, there’s also the prosaic, if profitable, urge to spend prodigious amounts of money, fund cutting-edge projects, direct future research, and triumph in interservice rivalries. All of this Astore takes up soaringly in the following piece. Tom

The Air Force Above All
Dominating the Air, Space, and Cyberspace
By William J. Astore

When I first joined the Air Force, its mission statement was straightforward: to fly and fight. The recruiting slogan was upbeat: the Air Force was “a great way of life,” and the ROTC program I enrolled in was the “gateway to a great way of life.”

Mission statements and slogans are easy to poke fun at and shouldn’t, perhaps, be taken too seriously. That said, the people who develop them do take them seriously, which is why they can’t be ignored.

Consider the Air Force’s new slogan: “Air Force — Above All.”

Okay, I admit it’s catchy, even cute, if, that is, you can get past the “high ground” conceit and ignore the Germanic über alles overtones. Its literal meaning is obvious enough and it does fit with the Air Force’s most basic precept, that mastery of the air means mastery of the ground. Yet today’s Air Force seeks more than that. It wants to extend its “mastery” to space (“the new high ground”) and even to cyberspace. This is yet another disturbing manifestation of our military’s quest for “full spectrum dominance,” achieved at debilitating cost to the American taxpayer — and a potentially destabilizing one to the planet.

Striving to be “above all” everywhere is ambitious to the point of folly. By comparison, the slogans of the Air Force’s sister services seem modest. The poor, embattled Army is simply “Army Strong.” The Navy now promises to “Accelerate Your Life.” Yawn. The Marines, always faithful, refuse to tinker with their slogan, which remains: “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” Meanwhile, the Air Force soars above such slavish adherence to tradition — as well as any reasonable sense of boundaries or restraint.

The new slogan may also serve as a reminder to airmen to keep their service branch “above all” in their hearts and minds — despite the fact that the Air Force is currently shedding 40,000 airmen as it tries to pay for a new generation of high-tech fighter jets. It most certainly is a measure of the service’s determination to deny the use of space to powerful rivals, whether China, Russia — or the U.S. Navy.

Perhaps the slogan even expresses a certain moral superiority — as in an Air Force pilot’s comment I once overheard that, when aloft, he felt “morally superior” to the little people scampering around on the ground below him. High ground, indeed.

Flying and Fighting, Everywhere!

So much for slogans. The Air Force’s new mission statement begins — and do bear with me for a moment —

The Mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests to fly and fight in air, space and cyberspace.

Flying and fighting in cyberspace sounds exciting — think Neo in The Matrix. And flying and fighting in space — which might yet come to pass — is so Star Wars, especially if the “good” side of the Force is with you, which it must be if you’re defending America.

But wait. The Air Force mission statement makes an instant, and anything but defensive u-turn, and promptly lays out a “vision” of “Global Vigilance, Reach and Power,” which, it claims, “orbits around three core competencies: Developing Airmen, Technology-to-Warfighting and Integrating Operations.” How a vision can orbit three cores I don’t know — and I once completed the “Space Operations Short Course” at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Nonetheless, this trinity of core competencies somehow enables six “capabilities,” which are unapologetically offensive.

The first of the six is “air and space superiority” with which we “can dominate enemy operations in all dimensions: land, sea, air and space.” Capability #2 turns out to be “global attack,” enabling us to “attack anywhere, anytime and do so quickly and with greater precision than ever before.” (In Bush-speak, we’ll kill them there, so they don’t kill us here.)

And when we attack, capability #4, “precision engagement,” theoretically ensures that we put bombs on target, as we used to say in simpler times. Today’s “precision” vision is more prolix: “the essence [of precision engagement] lies in the ability to apply selective force against specific targets because the nature and variety of future contingencies demand both precise and reliable use of military power with minimal risk and collateral damage.”

I pity the recruits who have to recite that mouthful of gobbledygook. As bloodless and evasive as such prose may be, however, the mission statement doesn’t pull punches about just what “above all” really means. It wields words like “attack,” “force,” “power,” and, most revealingly, “dominate.” They reflect what matters most in the new Air Force vision — and by extension, of course, that of our country. And if you don’t believe me, go to the Air Force website and click on the icons for “air dominance,” “space dominance,” and “cyber dominance.”

Death at a Distance

Our capability to deliver damage and death across the globe — at virtually no immediate risk to ourselves — gives extra meaning to the words “above all.” But with great power comes great responsibility, a tagline I learned as a teen from Spider-Man comic strips, but which is no less true for that. The problem is that our “global reach” often exceeds the grasp of our collective wisdom to employ “global power” responsibly.

Listen to the Air Force’s own pitch for its “global reach” and “global power,” and you know that today’s service is indeed an imperial instrument focused on “power projection” and “dominance” (with nary a thought of how others may respond to being dominated). Worse yet, our “capabilities” have so detached us from delivering death that it’s become remarkably close to a video-game-like exercise.

Twenty-five years ago, I watched a recruiting film that predicted the coming age of remote-control warfare. And where would the Air Force find its new “pilots,” the narrator asked rhetorically? The film promptly cut to a 1980s video arcade, where young teens were blasting away with abandon in games like “Missile Command.”

I remember the audience laughing, and it tickled my funny bone as well, but I’m not so amused anymore. For what was prophesied a generation ago has come true. Using unmanned drones, armed with missiles and “piloted” by joystick-wielding warriors, often thousands of miles away from the targets being attacked, the Air Force need not risk any aircrew in “battle.” Our military speaks blithely, even with excitement, of “killing ‘Bubba’ from the skies”; but, in actuality, what that means is: from air bases tucked safely far behind the lines, whether in Qatar on the Arabian peninsula or outside of Las Vegas. (In this case, what happens in Vegas definitely does not stay in Vegas.)

I’m not suggesting that our Global Hawk, Predator, and Reaper (What a name!) pilots are anything less than dedicated to their assigned missions, including minimizing “collateral damage.” Rather, the technology of unmanned aerial vehicles itself serves to detach them from their targets. Tracking the enemy, often with infrared sensors that show people as featureless blobs of heat-light, how can they not become human versions of the ruthless alien hunter that blasted its way through Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unit in a movie coincidentally named Predator?

As our weapons technology weakens ground-level empathy and understanding, it simultaneously emboldens the Air Force to seek (deceptively) “clean” kills. It’s well known, for example, that, in the opening days of the invasion of Iraq, in March 2003, the Bush administration tried to “decapitate” Saddam Hussein and his inner circle with precision weapons. (In fact, only Iraqi civilians were killed in these coordinated attacks aimed at the Iraqi leadership as the war began.)

Terrorist networks like Al Qaeda provide even fewer and more elusive “high-value” targets than do organized governments. Yet, when the U.S. succeeds with “decapitation” strikes against such networks, new heads often emerge, hydra-like, especially when “collateral damage” includes dead civilians — and live avengers.

Control Fantasies in Space

The Air Force’s vision of total domination used to stop at the stratosphere. Yet, according to its grandiose website, it now extends “to the shining stars and beyond.” I hesitate to ask what lies beyond. God? Certainly, there’s something unbounded, almost god-like, in the Air Force’s space fantasy.

When it turns to space, the Air Force readily admits its desire to dominate all potential foes. As Peter B. Teets, a former Air Force undersecretary and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, declared back in 2002: “If we do not exploit space to the fullest advantage across every conceivable mode of war fighting, then someone else will — and we allow this at our own peril.”

There’s nothing surprising about this “king of the hill” mentality. A decade ago, as a uniformed officer, I attended a space conference in Colorado Springs. Major topics of discussion included space weaponry already on the drawing board and being funded. Included were space-based directed energy weapons (“ten to twenty years away” was the prediction back then) and “Brilliant Pebbles,” a constellation of thousands of miniature killer-satellites, proposed in the 1980s, that would be used to intercept ballistic missiles and which, fortunately, went unfielded, though not for want of lobbying to revive the project.

Much of the argument then — undoubtedly abstruse to outsiders — was about whether space represented a “revolution in military affairs” or a “strategic center of gravity.” It turned out that it didn’t matter. Either way, we clearly had to seize it and dominate it first, since space, as “the ultimate high ground,” was going to be critical in future wars.

Several enthusiasts called for a new, separate, and independent space force, a fifth service, with its own unique doctrine — an idea the Air Force has, so far, fought off valiantly. Among my notes from the occasion was a statement by General Howell M. Estes III, then Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Space Command, that the Air Force simply couldn’t afford to lose the space mission — not just to “the enemy,” but to the dreaded U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, both of which were, he claimed, already exploiting space assets more skillfully than the Air Force.

Dominating space (and again the other services) certainly sounds seductive. Having worked in the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain, however, I can tell you that near-earth orbital space is already overcrowded with satellites and space junk — and the delicate sensors on these satellites are highly vulnerable to space shrapnel traveling at 17,000 miles per hour. Explosive battles in space would degrade, rather than enhance, any existing advantage in space-based intelligence and communication the U.S. does have. Demilitarizing space is the only sensible strategy, yet it’s the one that promises few lucrative contracts for aerospace firms and no new command billets for an Air Force seeking global (and supra-global) dominance.

Closing the Empathy Gap

As the Air Force flexes its earth, space, and cyber muscles, we rarely stop to think of the asymmetrical advantages enjoyed by the military — the overwhelming advantage in firepower, mobility, and technology. This has created what can only be called an empathy gap.

Fortunately, Americans have never been on the receiving end of a sustained bombing campaign in this country. Two shocking days excepted — December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor (where my uncle dodged aerial strafing at Schofield barracks), and September 11, 2001 in New York City and Washington — the skies have always been friendly to us, even the repository of our hopes and dreams. When fighter jets scream overhead, our first thought isn’t “death,” it’s display. We look up in curiosity or wonder; we don’t panic and run for our lives. We expect the opening of a sporting event or aerial acrobatics, not the arrival of “precision guided munitions.”

As a result, we have trouble realizing that our ability to soar “above all” and rain death from the skies generates resistance and revenge, rather than awe and retreat, or submission and rapprochement. We marvel that our enemies just don’t get the message — but our signals are mixed, and our receivers flawed.

Flying and fighting so far above it all has proven deceptive indeed. It leaves us with little idea of the new realities we are creating down below, and blind to the disturbing inequities and resentments generated by our global/galactic/cyber power.

It turns out that the higher you soar — the more “above all” you perceive yourself to be — the less likely it is that you’ll understand the little people beneath you, and the more likely it is that those same “little people” will resent being dominated. And the solution to that problem lies not in dominating the stars or some other higher physical realm, but in looking within to a higher moral realm. “Above All” in moral courage — now there’s a slogan toward which I’d willingly soar.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He currently teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005). He may be reached at [email protected].

Copyright 2008 William Astore

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal substack is Bracing Views. His video testimony for the Merchants of Death Tribunal is available at this link.