My life, in a sense, has been an arms race. The atomic bomb was initially tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 15, 1945, five days short of my first birthday. Less than a month later, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the Soviet Union didn't conduct its first nuclear test until August 1949, an arms race was essentially already underway before World War II ended. It's never stopped and we've all -- to use a phrase from my childhood when we dove under our school desks during nuclear-attack drills -- been ducking and covering ever since or, in the post-Cold War world, simply ignoring the fact that an arms race that could take us to Armageddon and back never really ended with the implosion of the Soviet Union.
Consider it symptomatic and symbolic that the administration of the first "abolitionist" president, Barack Obama, who came into office talking about denuclearizing the planet and promptly got a Nobel Prize for his "vision of a world free of nuclear arms" (take that, Donald Trump!), ended up overseeing the launch of a 30-year, $1.2 trillion "modernization" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That meant new missiles, bombers, and submarines. And now, as a new Cold War with China and Russia edges ever closer, we have a president who, in idle conversation, has threatened to essentially blow away two countries, North Korea and Afghanistan, assumedly with just such weaponry, leaving, as he recently put it, "tens of millions" dead.
Looking back on the last 75 years since my birth, arms races seem just so yesterday and yet, as TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon suggests in his latest post, so hypersonically today and tomorrow as well. How will all this end? It's reasonable to assume, at a moment when the modest nuclear treaties of the Cold War era are being blown away by the Trump administration, while the military-industrial complex is, as ever, hot to trot, that the answer is: not well -- hypersonically not well, in fact. Tom
Hypersonic Weapons and National (In)security
Why Arms Races Never End
By Rajan Menon
Hypersonic weapons close in on their targets at a minimum speed of Mach 5, five times the speed of sound or 3,836.4 miles an hour. They are among the latest entrants in an arms competition that has embroiled the United States for generations, first with the Soviet Union, today with China and Russia. Pentagon officials tout the potential of such weaponry and the largest arms manufacturers are totally gung-ho on the subject. No surprise there. They stand to make staggering sums from building them, especially given the chronic "cost overruns" of such defense contracts -- $163 billion in the far-from-rare case of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Voices within the military-industrial complex -- the Defense Department; mega-defense companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon; hawkish armchair strategists in Washington-based think tanks and universities; and legislators from places that depend on arms production for jobs -- insist that these are must-have weapons. Their refrain: unless we build and deploy them soon we could suffer a devastating attack from Russia and China.
The opposition to this powerful ensemble's doomsday logic is, as always, feeble.
The (Il)logic of Arms Races
Hypersonic weapons are just the most recent manifestation of the urge to engage in an "arms race," even if, as a sports metaphor, it couldn't be more off base. Take, for instance, a bike or foot race. Each has a beginning, a stipulated distance, and an end, as well as a goal: crossing the finish line ahead of your rivals. In theory, an arms race should at least have a starting point, but in practice, it's usually remarkably hard to pin down, making for interminable disputes about who really started us down this path. Historians, for instance, are still writing (and arguing) about the roots of the arms race that culminated in World War I.
The arms version of a sports race lacks a purpose (apart from the perpetuation of a competition fueled by an endless action-reaction sequence). The participants just keep at it, possessed by worst-case thinking, suspicion, and fear, sentiments sustained by bureaucracies whose budgets and political clout often depend on military spending, companies that rake in the big bucks selling the weaponry, and a priesthood of professional threat inflators who merchandise themselves as "security experts."
While finish lines (other than the finishing of most life on this planet) are seldom in sight, arms control treaties can, at least, decelerate and muffle the intensity of arms races. But at least so far, they've never ended them and they themselves survive only as long as the signatories want them to. Recall President George W. Bush's scuttling of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Trump administration's exit from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August. Similarly, the New START accord, which covered long-range nuclear weapons and was signed by Russia and the United States in 2010, will be up for renewal in 2021 and its future, should Donald Trump be reelected, is uncertain at best. Apart from the fragility built into such treaties, new vistas for arms competition inevitably emerge -- or, more precisely, are created. Hypersonic weapons are just the latest example.
Arms races, though waged in the name of national security, invariably create yet more insecurity. Imagine two adversaries neither of whom knows what new weapon the other will field. So both just keep building new ones. That gets expensive. And such spending only increases the number of threats. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, U.S. military spending has consistently and substantially exceeded China's and Russia's combined. But can you name a government that imagines more threats on more fronts than ours? This endless enumeration of new vulnerabilities isn't a form of paranoia. It's meant to keep arms races humming and the money flowing into military (and military-industrial) coffers.
One-Dimensional National Security
Such arms races come from the narrow, militarized definition of "national security" that prevails inside the defense and intelligence establishment, as well as in think tanks, universities, and the most influential mass media. Their underlying assumptions are rarely challenged, which only adds to their power. We're told that we must produce a particular weapon (price tag be damned!), because if we don't, the enemy will and that will imperil us all.
Such a view of security is by now so deeply entrenched in Washington -- shared by Republicans and Democrats alike -- that alternatives are invariably derided as naïve or quixotic. As it happens, both of those adjectives would be more appropriate descriptors for the predominant national security paradigm, detached as it is from what really makes most Americans feel insecure.