This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Misled Shield

Back in 1986, (now the late Sir) Arthur C Clarke wrote a superb critique of the Strategic Defence Initiative, which I still have in my file of clippings. In it he deconstructed, step by step, every rationale for Ronald Reagan’s favourite toy and demonstrated that, far from being a defensive shield, as advertised, its only possible use was offensive.

As most of you probably are as aware as I am, the SDI (also called “Star Wars”) comprised plans for a system of orbiting laser fortresses, particle guns, anti-ballistic missiles, and warning radars which were supposed to detect and destroy incoming Soviet missiles in the upper atmosphere or in the “boost phase” (while they were climbing towards orbit), thereby rendering a Communist first strike impossible because the enemy would know that their weapons would never reach their targets. So, the “free world” would be safe. Enticing, huh?

But Clarke, as I said, concluded that the whole thing was a red herring as far as a defensive shield was concerned. Instead, it was meant as an offensive weapon and as an instrument of coercion and blackmail.

How did Clarke arrive at this conclusion? He showed that the SDI would not, could not, possibly work to stop all incoming Soviet missiles, if they stopped any at all; the system was just too easy to beat. For instance, simply mirror-coating the warheads would defeat the orbiting laser fortresses of the SDI and cheap, light decoys which could be deployed in their hundreds and which would move just like real warheads in the ultra-thin upper atmosphere would swamp particle guns and anti-missile missiles. Not even the builders of such a system could have believed it would work, since all an enemy would need to do would be to increase its own warhead number enough to be sure of being able to defeat any such system. And it would take just one warhead to get through to take out a city... not to mention the fact that the SDI wouldn’t even be able to guard against cruise missiles launched by submarines or even simple manned bombers dropping free-fall bombs. 

And all this, assuming, of course, several things: assuming that the technology could actually be developed and the SDI system constructed at an affordable rate; assuming it would work precisely as advertised, first time round, without failures; assuming the Russians wouldn’t simply invent new types of delivery systems designed to circumvent the SDI; assuming that they wouldn’t take out this orbitingMaginot Line with anti-satellite weapons; and assuming that the that the people manning the radars detected the enemy missile launch at once and reacted fast enough, instead of first spending time confirming (as they would have to do) that it was a real launch and not a meteor shower or a computer glitch. You see where this gets you?

This is where it gets you: even if the completely unproven and nonexistent technology worked precisely as advertised, the SDI would not have worked.

However, in an atmosphere of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the simple calculation was that no side would actually launch a nuclear war because that would mean the end of life on earth; therefore, just having the capacity to delude one’s own people into believing that one was immune from the enemy’s nuclear forces meant that war became much more acceptable to one’s people. And those orbital laser fortresses were useless against missiles, sure; but would be infinitely more effective against ground targets. 

Suppose a fortress is supposed to be able to take out a warhead a thousand kilometres away, travelling at many times the speed of sound; what would that laser be able to do to a large and stationary target on the ground, a building in the enemy capital, let’s say, just a hundred kilometres below? If you remember the inverse square law (school physics, nothing fancy, folks), when the target is just a tenth of the distance away, the intensity of the beam (without allowing for atmospheric losses, admitted, but on a clear day atmospheric losses would be minimal) would be one hundred times as great as that needed to destroy a missile! Can you imagine what a weapon of coercion and blackmail such an orbiting station would be to any country? The British Empire’s gunboats had nothing on it.

And that was in the day of the old USSR, which was an infinitely stronger conventional power than today’s Russia and China put together, and which didn’t have to depend on its nuclear forces for defence. Russia today is weak, and its military is still so underfunded that the best weapons go to exports, and the nuclear arsenal is its only source of security.

Now all of us know, I take it, that the “Iranian nuclear missile threat” is baloney, hogwash and garbage? Even if we assumed that the Iranians had any desire to threaten anyone with nuclear weapons, and if the rhetoric of the anti-Iran brigade was to be taken seriously for half a second, the Iranians would target the Zionazi pseudostate and not its American backers. If we are to assume the Iranians are actually in possession of a nuclear arsenal and choose to use it, and if we assume that they are actually the terrorist backers the anti-Iranian cabal claims they are, they would probably smuggle in the nukes somehow and use some diplomatic blackmail  rather than fire missiles whose origins are clearly identifiable and sign their own death warrants. The Russians, whom the Americans have never, for one moment, stopped targeting (to the extent of demonising all Russian leaders who are less pliant than the late unlamented Boris Yeltsin, encouraging Ukraine and the horrible Georgian regime to join NATO, and let’s not forget the Chechens who received US and British backing until the mid 2000s) were the target. And Russia, with its weak army and its few functioning missiles (how many of its missiles, I wonder, can it even depend on to operate as they are supposed to?) would have been effectively disarmed by a functioning missile defence shield. 

(In fact, if the “Iranian Threat” was the actual reason, why on earth would the Czech and Polish puppets have declared that their nations were threatened by its cancellation, as the original article claims? Nobody ever said that the Iranians were about to invade Prague or Warsaw, right? Why are the Poles even mentioning the 70th anniversary of the “invasion” of Poland by the USSR in 1939 in connection with the withdrawal of the missile shield if it has nothing to do with the Russians?) 

Now we have this word “functioning” which I used in relation with the missile shield. Let me say something here, call it a forecast if you will: the missile shield will not work. Missile defence shields have never worked though for some reason they are big news these days. Even when they were advertised to have worked, they didn’t; it’s widely acknowledged that the Patriot system in Gulf War 1 failed to destroyeven one of Saddam Hussein’s fragile reverse-engineered SCUDs, which had a difficult enough time not breaking up on their own en routeto the target, even without outside intervention, thank you. 

And here we are talking about something much more difficult than shooting down a slow and crude short-range missile; we’re talking about intercepting something travelling at many times the speed of sound, something that will probably be releasing decoys and may quite likely be equipped with a system to allow it to manoeuvre. It’s usually compared to trying to hit a bullet with a bullet, but it’s much more difficult than that. It’s more like trying to hit one particular bullet in a salvo, and that while the bullet is jinking and dodging. And remember this: there is no margin for error. You have to hit the bullet each time,every time. 

(And there is another little factor: what would happen to those intercepted “Iranian” missiles? Well, they wouldn’t vanish; they’d break up in the atmosphere and sow the countryside of Poland and Slovakia with uranium and plutonium, even assuming the “Iranians” didn’t set them to explode if attacked. If they “salvage fused” them to so explode, things would be even worse with nuclear fallout – not to mention theelectromagnetic pulse wiping out electrical systems all over South-Eastern Europe. Does this defence shield sound like a workable thing to you?)

So, there’s a big problem with this word “functioning”. In its official meaning, of course Russia has nothing to be afraid of; the defence shield won’t function. But as I said, it has another and quite different function: it makes war much, much more attractive for certain people. The US is now a war state, every bit as much as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were war states. A war state – my definition – is a nation which can only maintain a raison d’etre if it lives in a state of constant war. The politicians understand that. And the military-industrial complex knows how to use the politicians.

Even if a major war isn’t on the cards, planning for it is a constant source of funding to certain people and the US is probably the world’s only nation which plans for ultra-high-tech wars in 2035 while being handed its ass on a plate by peasant guerrillas in Afghanistan right in the here and now. But peasant guerrillas only kill expendable grunts while ultra-high-tech weaponry doesn’t even have to be effective, since it isn’t meant ever to be used. (Planning for the next war is all very well, but which war the US plans for needs the kind of fantasy weaponrybeing developed these days? Does the Pentagon, unable to beat the Taliban, wish to fight the Zorg beings of Aldebaran?)

So the question arises: why did Obama agree not to deploy the shield? Obviously, since the shield has everything to do with Russia and nothing to do with Iran, abandoning it has everything to do with Russia and not Iran. I’d even be willing to let Obama have the benefit of the doubt: maybe he really does want a rapprochement with the Evil Empire. But whether he does or not, his officials wouldn’t have let it go through without an ulterior motive.

Two reasons I can think of: first, the shield is too small and too theoretical to work against a missile strike, too small even to delude a substantial section of the people into thinking it’s a real defence, and so it can be abandoned; and the second reason is that the US, for the time being at least, needs Russia in order to have easy access to its colony in Afghanistan. For both reasons, the unworkable defence shield was expendable and discarded. 

But of course the base reason for the shield, the military industrial complex and its constant appetite for funding, hasn’t been discarded. Just as the SDI never came into being but earned a lot of defence contractors a lot of money, the weapons programmes of today – the really big programmes – will concentrate of cloud-cuckoo-dreams that can be sold to politicians but are actually just oriented towards making money.

Be assured, then, whether you are an opponent or a supporter of Obama, that the shield isn’t dead. It will be resurrected in some form, if only as undersea aircraft carriers, or amphibious submarines, or something. 

It’s the money, honey. 

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