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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Death star

National security and defense debates never seem to die -- but they sometimes become more colorful.

More than twenty years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on "Managing the Perils of Nuclear Proliferation." I'd like to say it was ahead of its time, but Lewis Dunn had just published Controlling the Bomb (Yale, 1982). My library research was thorough, but ultimately derivative. Hell, in 1980-81, Dartmouth's top debate team (actually, they were ranked as the best team in the country) advocated that the US pass along PALs and other technological protections to potential new proliferants. The biggest risks could be mitigated by making the new proliferant forces invulnerable to rival first strike and safe from unauthorized use and theft. By the end of that year, my sophomore season, my colleague and I occasionally argued that case too.**

A few years later, spurred by Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" address, I set about studying the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Because there wasn't too much new to say about missile defenses -- after all, "anti-ballistic missiles" (ABM) were thoroughly debated in the 1960s by defense intellectuals -- I decided to focus on the recurrence of the debate itself, and the arguments employed by the various advocates. Hence, my dissertation concerned "Communication Strategy and 'Strategic' Weapons: Case Studies of ABM Decisions." I also explored some of the Reagan administration's threat inflation concerning SDI.

Last week, the New York Times (I read the same story in the International Herald Tribune), reported that the Air Force is now recommending variants of missile defense that focus directly on the proliferation problem. This is not a new idea either. Robert McNamara's 1967 ABM proposal was designed to mitigate threats from China's new atomic threat.
The air force believes "we must establish and maintain space superiority," General Lance Lord, who leads the U.S. Air Force Space Command, told Congress recently. "Simply put, it's the American way of fighting."

...A new air force strategy, called Global Strike, calls for a military space plane carrying precision-guided weapons armed with a half-ton of munitions. Lord told Congress last month that Global Strike would be "an incredible capability" to destroy command centers or missile bases "anywhere in the world."

Pentagon documents say the weapon could strike from halfway around the world in 45 minutes. "This is the type of prompt Global Strike I have identified as a top priority for our space and missile force," Lord said.
Opponents have rallied quickly. Just as foes of Reagan's plans used the phrase "Star Wars" to frame opposition to SDI, current skeptics have again borrowed from the imagination of George Lucas. This time, the weaponry of Lord Darth Vader comes more directly to mind:
Another space program, 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, or 11,500 kilometers an hour, with the force of a small nuclear weapon...No nation will "accept the U.S. developing something they see as the death star," Teresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information, a policy-analysis group in Washington, said at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. "I don't think the United States would find it very comforting if China were to develop a death star, a 24/7 on-orbit weapon that could strike at targets on the ground anywhere in 90 minutes."
Academically, I may have to return to this colorful new debate. After all, as other bloggers have noted, the neoconservative right openly admires Vader's empire. And Bush has selected a General named Lord to oversee a program dubbed Rods from God? Incredible.

** My ultimate career choices were strongly influenced by that 1980-1981 debate season. In response to teams that wanted to ratify the SALT accords, I developed an argument called "The Russian Revolution" that claimed the Soviet Union and its empire was going to collapse under the weight of the arms race. Most of the key pieces of evidence came somewhat dubiously from a Taiwanese magazine and more reasonably from the book, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? Remember, Poland was cracking at the seams that year.

By the end of the 1981 season, my colleague and I were arguing that the 1980 death of Marshall Tito meant that civil war in Yugoslavia was inevitable. The US needed to act then to prevent that violence. This was all based on secondary research in scholarly journals and books. Retired NATO General John Hackett had published The Third World War, which also considered the implosion of Yugoslavia.

Kids, do you understand why I think debate was so valuable?

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