Monday, January 9, 2017

US Congress clears the way for a space arms race

(December 22) The U.S. Congress has opened the way for a space arms race and altered U.S. nuclear defense doctrine simply by removing a single word from the Defense Authorization Act.

The change could result in allowing a costly program of space-based weaponry. The change was approved by large majorities in both the House and the Senate. Experts claim that the changes could heighten tensions with Russia and China and begin a new arms race. The bill still needs to be approved by President Obama. There has been no indication what he will do.
The U.S. depends upon a missile-defense system to respond to a small-scale attack such as might come from North Korea. A large scale strike by China or Russia is deterred through the capability of massive retaliation. Crucial to this strategy was the use of the term "limited" to apply to the homeland missile defense system. This language was carefully crafted in order to avoid an arms race with China and Russia.
With virtually no public debate, the word "limited" has been removed during the final approval of the Defense Authorization Act. Another provision of the laws urges the Pentagon to begin "research, development, test and evaluation " of space-based systems for missile defense. Any such program would depend upon annual funding and decisions by the incoming Trump administration to go ahead with the program.
Trump's appointee for Minister of Defense General James Mattis was on the board of the defense contractor General Dynamics. The U.S. government has already been working on a Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) defense system. Since 2002 to last year, the Pentagon has carried out 11 test flights. The interceptors launched from underground silos to hit their targets high above the Pacific failed to destroy them in six of eleven tests. Over the same period Boeing Co. the prime contractor for the GMD collected almost $2 billion in performance bonuses.
Both proponents and opponents of the altered policy agree that the change is significant. Representative Trent Franks the Republican who introduced and guided the amendments through the House said: “These amendments were historic in nature — given the paradigm shift forward that they represent.” Some leading defense scientists considered the idea of a space-based missile defense system pure fantasy. David Montague, a retired president of missile defense systems for Lockheed, and also a co-chair of a panel of the National Academy of Sciences that studied missile defense technologies at the request of Congress, said: “It defies the laws of physics and is not based on science of any kind. Even if we darken the sky with hundreds or thousands of satellites and interceptors, there’s no way to ensure against a dedicated attack. So it’s an opportunity to waste a prodigious amount of money.” It is also a golden opportunity for defense contractors to be awarded lucrative contracts with hefty profits. Montague was hardly careful in crafting his response to the provisions calling them "insanity, pure and simple". Yet there seems to be little opposition within congress and not all that much analysis or discussion about it in the press.
In 2012 a National Academy study had estimated that even a bare-bones space-based missile defense system would cost about $200 billion plus hundreds of billions more to operate over subsequent years. Given the cost and the likelihood of failure, any U.S. program may not provoke a corresponding program by China and Russia. When Franks was asked if the U.S. could afford the program he said: “What is national security worth? It’s priceless.”
Philip E. Coyle III, a former assistant secretary of Defense who headed the Pentagon office responsible for testing and evaluating weapon systems, said the whole notion of a space-based defense system was a sham: “To do this would cost just gazillions and gazillions. The technology isn’t at hand — nor is the money. It’s unfortunate from my point of view that the Congress doesn’t see that. Both Russia and China will use it as an excuse to do something that they want to do.”
Franks said that he had drawn inspiration for his plan from President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative that took place in the 1980's. The plan was to use lasers and other space-based weapons to destroy nuclear weapons and was known as "Star Wars". While the initiative spent $30 billion of taxpayer money, there was no system deployed.
The Obama administration has objected to the elimination of the term "limited" and to placing anti-missile weapons in space, but there has as yet been no threat of a veto. A final objection to the changes came from Vice Admiral James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency who said: “I have serious concerns about the technical feasibility of the interceptors in space and I have serious concerns about the long-term affordability of a program like that.” The experts somehow miss the fact that the program will create many new jobs and boost the profits and stock prices of important defense contractors. The program is a generous Xmas gift for the military-industrial complex.


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