Here Comes the Future of War

On drones, satellites, and Star Wars.

Posted Apr 23, 2012

Over at Andrew Sullivan's always-interesting blog, there's a discussion concerning how ever-smaller, ever-cheaper drones will affect the evolution of war. I've written a bit about this before, but I don't think I've ever publicly stated my suspicions about what's really going on behind the scenes among the war-planners. Sullivan's discussion reminded me that I may as well make my predictions publicly so I can be even more annoying to my friends and family when I not only say, "I told you so," but have a dated blog post to prove it! So here goes.

Ever since the Reagan administration, the most expensive, most secretive item in the defense budget has been the so-called Star Wars missile defense system. Tens of billions of dollars have been shoveled into this program, with pitiful results. A recent analysis reports that,

Plagued by developmental obstacles and test failures, seven out of fifteen tests of the GMD system have failed since 1999. Most critically, the last two intercept flight tests in January 2010 and December 2010 were both failures. The missile has not been tested since. A missile defense system which cannot reliably destroy incoming missiles under optimum conditions is not a defense system - it is an exceedingly expensive boondoggle.

Five presidents have continued to fund this research, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year, to—theoretically—protect the U.S. from a missile attack which would be easily traced back to its source. In other words, it's an impossibly expensive system, which doesn't work, meant to protect against a danger that doesn't exist, and which wouldn't be used even if it did (due to assured massive retaliation from the U.S.). WTF?

Here's where my theory kicks in. When I think about this, even in my most cynical moods (which are mighty dark, my friends), I still can't believe the American political system is crazy enough to waste that much money on something so frivolous and inane. Then it struck me.

We know that the research is focused in two main areas; developing a belt of satellites that monitor every spot on the planet, in high definition detail (supposedly to detect a missile launch), and other satellites in position to shoot down the missile with a high-energy laser fueled by on-board nuclear reactors. Now, just for kicks, let's say those satellites aren't really intended to spot missile launches but are meant to offer constant real-time surveillance of every spot on the planet. Then, just for kicks, let's say the attack satellites aren't really for shooting down missiles (which they don't seem able to do anyway), but for vaporizing cars, buildings, and "bad guys" walking down the streets of Yemen, Karachi, or Jersey City.

If I'm right about this, once the system is in place, it'll take our current drone warfare situation into a whole new realm. We've already got guys sitting in front of computers in Nevada, killing people in Pakistan with the click of a mouse. Surface-attack satellites will just intensify this movement toward remote-control warfare, with the attendant political repercussions.

For me, the most interesting—and chilling—repercussion will be that we are fast approaching a unique moment in human history. For the first time ever, those in control will not have to convince the public to engage in war. At all.

In her run-away bestseller, Drift, Rachel Maddow argues that the American political system is already quickly drifting away from the sort of political accountability that comes with a citizen army, where the sons and daughters of the privileged classes are dying along with the children of less fortunate parents. She's certainly right about how the "volunteer" military allows the rest of us to ignore the shenanigans of politicians because nobody we know has lost limbs or loved ones. But still, the domestic reality flares up occasionally, mainly when some tormented soul explodes in murderous rage: "going postal," it was called in the post-Vietnam era.

Rather than having to convince, or coerce, hundreds of thousands of people to participate in their wars, future leaders will only have to assure the compliance and loyalty of a few hundred guys sitting in top-secret bunkers somewhere. If I'm right about the near-future of war, our current drift will accelerate and take us right over the falls into a whole new world any day now.

And I'm gonna say I told you so.

About the Author

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is the co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.

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