First off, apologies to any Trekkie readers: don’t let the title put you off. I’m about to throw in an oblique Gene Roddenberry gem, not just for good measure, but because no one puts it better.
Space is, we can only assume, our final frontier. There are not many ventures more expensive – in terms of energy and cash (those Siamese handmaidens of globalisation) – than putting mass into orbit. In the idealised case, every kilo to be launched needs 1 million joules of energy behind it to beat the potential field of Earth’s gravity. That’s a lot of Mars bars. In practice, much more energy is required in order to overcome air drag and rocket inefficiencies.
This massive energy barrier is still on the to-be-defeated list for the good old USofA, and it’s not NASA who are looking up and out this time. It’s the Department of Defense.
In 1984 the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was set up in order to oversee President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Both projects were born in the bosom of the Department of Defense (DoD). If we were watching Good Morning Vietnam, Robin Williams would now enter stage left and say something like, “So the SDIO monitors the SDI all under the DoD? Wow, sounds crazy, but at least it ain’t MAD.” That’s Mutually Assured Destruction (or Mind Altering Drugs), which, up until 1984 was supposedly all that kept the US and Russia from wiping each off the map. That and, you’d hope, the incredible cost of life entailed by global nuclear war. Actually, seeing as none of the SDI programs were ever operational, even after 1984 MAD has pretty much been the best defense against a nuclear strike.
There were a couple of non-starters before SDI and it has undergone a number of makeovers since. It stands out from other US initiatives as the first missile defense system to incorporate space based elements as well as the more ponderous ground based ideas. And what space based elements.
Back in the late 80s, just some of the ideas being thrown around by top brass included space lasers, massive spaceborne offensive particle accelerators and some wonderful little somethings called Brilliant Pebbles – a fleet of watermelon sized kinetic warheads envisioned to hover above the atmosphere and sic any stray ICBMs. Needless to say, none of these ideas ever made it above ground into the light of day, let alone the vacuum of space.
Most of the wilder projects were shut down when the SDIO morphed into the Ballistic Missile Defense Organisation (BMDO) under Clinton. Through the 90s, the focus was turned to boring old ground based defense – shooting a missile clean out of the air probably rightly deemed a tad easier than constructing a space laser. Still no mean feat. However, with the secrecy that surrounds everything the DoD touches, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few Death Star blueprints doing rounds of the Pentagon and the Laurence Livermore National Laboratory – motherships of national security both.
The waning of the Cold War has done little to halt American ambitions. In the absence of impending global catastrophe, they merely seek new growth markets for their technologies. Although no details of the agenda for the upcoming summit between NATO and the EU have been released, many commentators believe that Star Wars is very much on the agenda, to be implemented as an enormous blanket covering Europe and North America. In February 2010, the US successfully knocked out a ballistic missile using a modified 747 jet packing an array of lasers and a nose turret.
America spent a staggering 23% of it’s colossal $3.5 trillion budget on the military in 2009. That figure will only go up if more Star Wars projects are given the go ahead, flying in the face of America’s ragged checkbook.
Disarmament campaigns have their hackles up about Star Wars for a number of reasons. There’s the obvious and bewildering threat posed by a nation which commands an army of (smart?) kinetic warheads in orbit above the globe. There’s also the real and serious issue of the US military’s failure to achieve its stated goal of “Full Spectrum Dominance”. The final frontier of space dominance remains illusive. A particularly startling section of the DoD 2003 report (US Joint Warfare and Crisis Resolution in the 21st Century) expresses a need to:
“Achieve full spectrum dominance across the range of military operations, inclusive of robust support for US Homeland Security efforts as directed.”
The bold is their emphasis, the italics is mine. Is it just me, or does robust support for US Homeland Security efforts sound worryingly ominous? When taken outside its military context, which it doesn’t look too pretty in, pursuit of full spectrum dominance seems likely to have horrific consequences; humane, global and environmental. We can only hope that it’s all just big talk from big boys.