Defend the Earth, Not Arms Dealers
Koohan Paik-Mander / The LA Progressive
(August 5, 2021) — We are drowning and burning and choking because of climate change.
The world is haunted by images of commuters in China, in a dark subway car with muddy water up to their necks, standing in order to breathe.
Only days before, Germany and Belgium witnessed torrents of water that swept away centuries-old, half-timbered houses, leaving hundreds dead. A few days before that, Oman, New Zealand, New York, and elsewhere had also been deluged. Meanwhile, out-of-control fires on the west coast are belching so much smoke that New Yorkers can’t breathe.
We have entered the era of Climate Catastrophe, and our president and Congress must respond appropriately. Instead, they continue to pour billions of dollars every year into war-making that will further compromise the health of the Earth and the survival of its people.
In June 2021, the US released the FY 2022 defense budget request. The theme was singular: to dominate China. The wish list came to $715 billion. Then, the following month, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to pile on another $25 billion in a nearly unanimous bipartisan vote. (Only Elizabeth Warren demurred.)
The floods, fires, tornadoes, rain bombs and mudslides are, by far, the biggest threat to global security. Not China.
A Hypersonic Arms Race
The spectre of “the China threat” has been effective in justifying endless support for war, expansion of the nuclear arsenal, and developing uber-costly high-tech weapons, like hypersonics, that don’t even function yet. Even if they did function, they would open up the chance of miscalculation that could easily tip into nuclear war.
What makes hypersonic weapons so unique is not their speed, but rather, their maneuverability.They can keep their target a secret by taking a surprising pivot just before striking. This makes them impossible to intercept with current technologies. It also makes them prime candidates for a miscalculated retaliatory second strike, and perilous escalation.
By contrast, the Pentagon’s sales pitches stress how much further ahead China and Russia are in their hypersonics development. This narrative has so far been very successful in garnering Congressional support, so much so, that we now find ourselves in an accelerating hypersonic arms race, in which no one benefits but the weapons industry.
“Climate Change”? What’s That?
The companies which routinely benefit from developing hypersonic weapons and their infrastructure are Lockheed Martin, Dynetics Technical Solutions, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, Leidos, L3Harris, and Raytheon – the company where Lloyd Austin served as a board member until he was appointed Secretary of Defense.
Clearly, Austin and his colleagues in the weapons industry are in the business to stimulate a profitable arms race.
The resulting instability has distracted lawmakers from what we actually need for real security.
George Nacouzi, a senior engineer at the conservative RAND Corporation, and co-author of “Hypersonic Missile Nonproliferation: Hindering the Spread of a New Class of Weapons,” suggests, “If you could just start with a trilateral agreement between these three major nations (China, the US and Russia), that would be taking a really effective step in terms of controlling proliferation of these weapons.”
Hypersonic speed is defined as traveling at Mach 5 or higher, with Mach 1 being the speed of sound – about 680 mph. Mach 5 would be five times that, so hypersonic weapons are those which travel 57 miles per minute and faster.
There are two types of hypersonic weapons in development:
- hypersonic cruise missiles, which use an advanced engine called a “scramjet,” which slows down incoming airflow to maintain steady combustion, and
- hypersonic glide vehicles, which are launched from a rocket, but which then detach and glide, engine-free, through the low atmosphere, before striking a target
The development of hypersonics is still in its infancy, especially interception technologies. Existing interception systems are designed to strike incoming ballistic missiles, which may travel just as fast as hypersonics, but because their trajectory is as predictable as a fly ball’s arc, they can be intercepted. By contrast, the mosquito-like path of hypersonics makes them impossible to intercept.
Hypersonic research and development is focused on developing a new kind of interception. Creating an effective interception system would require a matrix of thousands of satellites cocooning our planet, capable of tracking and striking every 3-dimensional coordinate, within the Earth’s atmosphere, with nanosecond precision. Northrup Grumman was awarded a $155 million contract in January 2021 to develop the prototype for such a satellite network. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance were awarded contracts worth about about $1 billion per year to launch the satellites.
The privacy, health and ecological implications of building such a defense infrastructure are staggering. Not to mention that every satellite launch punches another hole in the Earth’s fragile ozone.
No Humans, No Humanity
Another unsettling implication of hypersonic interception is that it is being designed so that artificial intelligence will actually do most of the “thinking” required to “pull the trigger.” Because the time between launch and strike of an incoming missile could be as brief as 6 minutes, it is believed that humans would be prone to panic within such a short duration of time, whereas machines would not. The rapid, rational thought processing required during such a moment of urgency is thought to be best handled by machines.
As machine decision-making accelerates warfare, it is plain to see how conflict could easily escalate. Compressed time and space creates the incentive for each side to strike first and strike fast in a perceived crisis. This is a recipe for crisis instability. It’s sort of like a Twitter war, with WMDs instead of words. Even if neither party initially planned to strike first, the accelerated dynamic inherent in an AI-driven scenario forces the likelihood of mutually assured destruction.
James Johnson, in Strategic Studies Quarterly, elaborates on what parts of the thinking would be turned over to artificial intelligence (AI):
“AI technology is expected to accelerate progress for hypersonic weapons and other long-range (conventional and nuclear-armed) precision munitions in all of these critical enabling capabilities:
- autonomous navigation and advanced vision-based guidance systems,
- ISR systems for targeting and tracking (especially mobile) targets,
- missile release and sensor systems,
- AI machine learning systems to decipher patterns from large data sets to support intelligence analysis for identifying and tracking targets,
- pattern interpretation to cue decision support systems for enabling “fire and forget” missiles, and
- escalation prediction.
In a 2018 Sandia Laboratories report to the US Department of Energy, the company boasts that it is “(a)chieving an autonomous hypersonic missile… that can intelligently navigate, guide, and control itself and home-in on targets ranging from traditional stationary systems to targets that are themselves hypersonic vehicles—with all the maneuverability that this entails.”
What kind of insane logic has led Congress to accept this ghastly scenario? Have we become so disconnected from the Earth, and from our own humanity, that we can so easily hand over the already compromised future of our planet to algorithms? As appalling as it sounds, this is precisely what approval of the defense budget has revealed. When you see a budget line item that reads “hypersonic missile,” assume that it will be a machine pulling the trigger.
Hypersonic Arms Control
There also is some good news. Because hypersonics are still all experimental, we are in an ideal moment to establish risk-mitigation measures, such as negotiating a new international arms control agreement that would institute a moratorium or ban on hypersonic weapon testing. Such a path would include calls for international transparency and confidence-building measures, such as exchanging weapons data and conducting joint technical studies.
It would be in the highest interest of genuine security to do so.
Richard Speier of RAND Corporation reflects on such a prospect, “I am optimistic about the US, Russia and China. It’s in their interest to do this. And there’s time to do it. Not a lot of time. But a few years.”
So, what will it take for our lawmakers to show leadership during this most dire moment in human history? Don’t they get that you can pour resources into war, or you can pour resources into reviving life on Earth — but you can’t do both? The activities are mutually exclusive.
Militarism is the most fossil-fuel consuming, carbon-releasing, species-extinguishing activity on Earth.
The $740 billion defense budget should be spent for genuine defense of life, not militarism. It should be redirected to an “Earth budget.” That money should be used to employ people to build renewable-energy microgrids and functional public transportation, as well as diplomatic relations toward arms control treaties.
We need to provide support for our own climate refugees, for regenerative agriculture, and for universal healthcare. We must clean up our waterways and Superfund sites, remove microplastics and other chemicals from the environment, and engage in countless other tasks that await those who love each other and this Earth. Let’s cooperate with China on that. It is certainly the only way anything positive will result.
Koohan Paik-Mander, who grew up in postwar Korea and on the US colony of Guam, is a Hawaii-based journalist and media educator. She is a board member of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space and formerly served as campaign director of the Asia-Pacific program at the International Forum on Globalization.
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