Issue 254 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review



The arms race is back on, fuelled by George Bush's Star Wars project. Yuri Prasad argues that the world is becoming a much more dangerous place

Stars in their eyes

  • The NMD shield wlll depend on radars at Menwithill and Flyingdales in Yorkshire
  • The US has already started updating the technology at these RAF bases in readiness
  • The bases could make Britain a target for attack despite the fact that NMD will offer Britain no protection
  • More deadly weapons have created a new movement

    When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, a new era of peace and prosperity was predicted by many mainstream commentators. The superpower arms race, mutually assured destruction and all that went with them were to be the stuff of history books. The atomic bomb was rendered obsolete. There was going to be a 'peace dividend'. Just over ten years later President George Bush has given the green light to the National Missile Defence (NMD) project, sometimes called Star Wars, and it looks like the arms race is back on.

    There was a twisted logic to mutually assured destruction (Mad)--the US had long-range weapons that could hit Moscow, and the Soviet Union had long-range weapons that could hit Washington. Neither side could be confident that, if its actions started a nuclear war, it would be around to see it finish. But if the US found a way of stopping Russian missiles from reaching American shores, creating a shield around itself by shooting them down as they flew over the oceans, the whole basis of Mad would come crashing down. One side could act without fear of reprisal.

    It was this threat to the carefully balanced nuclear brinkmanship that led to the negotiation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 1972. The treaty prevented either side from developing a system to knock out the other's long-range weapons. And while the former Soviet Union is no longer regarded as the most significant threat to US security, the treaty had the effect of laying down some rules which other nuclear powers have tended to follow. NMD will rip that treaty apart. Speaking in Spain last month, George Bush expressed no concerns: 'The ABM treaty is a relic of the past. It prevents freedom-loving people from exploring the future. And that's why we've got to lay it aside.'

    For Bush there is a new enemy--the 'rogue states'. Rogue states are those which the US has identified as not accepting its role as the world's policeman and chief powerbroker. It is a political description that carries many anomalies. For example, North Korea is a 'rogue state' that Secretary of State Colin Powell describes as posing 'a very, very serious threat to our ally South Korea'. Meanwhile, Israel, which responds to suicide bombs with air to ground missiles, is an ally.

    Some of these states have access to nuclear, chemical or biological weaponry. If they can develop the technology to launch these at the US, they could deter the US from launching military interventions around the world. Bush says that the NMD shield could stop their missiles before they hit the US, but NMD is based on unproven technology and flawed logic--even some Republicans remain unconvinced. Back in 1996 Chet Edwards argued that 'Star Wars presents a false sense of security. It is like putting a $5,000 burglar alarm on the front door of your house, and yet keeping the front windows of your house open ...surely some thug or some terrorist smart enough to put a nuclear warhead on the top of an ICBM missile would have the intelligence to take that warhead, rent a U-Haul truck and deliver it to any city within the United States.'

    Science fiction

    The science behind NMD should also be viewed sceptically. Back in 1983 US President Ronald Reagan wanted to build a launchpad for weapons in space which could hit Russian missiles and guidance satellites. Millions of dollars were invested to no avail because the technology he craved only existed in science fiction films. TRW Inc, one of the foremost NMD contractors, is being sued by one of its own senior engineers after it falsified test results relating to the ability of the NMD system to tell the difference between a real missile and a decoy. The first stage of tests on NMD happened in July 2000--they were a complete disaster. The repeat of these tests is due to occur later this month, having been postponed several times. But with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimating that the eventual cost of the system will be about $240 billion, it is unlikely that any of the defence contractors involved will reveal flaws in the science or weaknesses in the system. Even successful tests are no guarantee of reliability in real situations. The Patriot missile system used during the Gulf War tested brilliantly, but when set to work in the Middle East its success rate was poor. According to the US General Accounting Office, 'only 9 percent of intercept attempts can be judged successful'.

    The response of nuclear states to the introduction of the shield will be an increase in both the quantity and sophistication of the long-range nuclear weapons in their arsenals. If NMD relies on unproven technology, firing more warheads with smarter decoys at it would be one way of maintaining an independent nuclear capability. This might have the effect of pricing smaller states out of the nuclear market. North Korea is one state whose name is mentioned when discussing countries NMD is designed to defend against. But North Korea has no proven long-range missiles. Its Taepo Dong-2 is in prototype stage and would require major modification to deliver a nuclear payload over a long range.

    It might be the case that the smaller 'rogue states' may not be able to afford to keep up, but can the same be said of China? In 1999 French president Chirac commented, 'There's a permanent arms race between the sword and the shield. The sword always wins. The more improvements that are made to the shield, the more improvements are made to the sword.' China has only a couple of dozen long-range nuclear weapons. They all require several hours of preparation before launch. In a war situation some could be wiped out before launch, the rest may be destroyed by the shield. The introduction of NMD will force China to begin modernising and expanding its stock of long-range missiles. In addition to the huge burden this will place upon Chinese workers when spending is diverted from civilian to military use, the new arms will heighten regional tensions. China's main rival in Asia is India, and India is already a significant nuclear power. An increase in the nuclear capabilities of China will lead to pressure upon India to do likewise and this in turn will affect Pakistan. This is the beginning of a spiral which will see existing nuclear powers rush to acquire the most effective missile technology, and non-nuclear powers will face intense pressure to join the race.

    More deadly weapons have created a new movement(above)
    More deadly weapons have created a new movement(above)

    Gains for the arms industry

    So the likely outcome of building a protective shield for the US is to make the world infinitely more unstable, changing the balance of forces between regional powers. The Chinese news agencies have responded to Bush's plan, saying, 'US plans to build a missile defence system will not only spark a new arms race and create a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but will also threaten world peace and security in the 21st century.' Tony Blair's spokesperson, Alistair Campbell, disagreed, saying that NMD is 'broadly a good idea'. The British government may not have openly embraced the system yet but it has been complicit in developing the infrastructure that NMD requires.

    In addition to the race for new missiles will be the race for new shields. Several European governments, including Britain, are backing a system called Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) which is designed to stop short and medium range nuclear missiles hitting troops and equipment deployed anywhere in Europe. The cost for the missiles alone has started at 1.3 billion, with the total cost of the programme likely to be in excess of 8 billion.

    As the new arms race gathers speed it will require more of our resources to be diverted away from useful projects, but there will be beneficiaries. The British American Security Information Council reports that the result of contracts to build a European shield has been a resurgent European missile industry now able to compete globally in a market previously dominated by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. The US arms manufacturers have responded by buying government support for NMD--no matter what the objections, they cannot afford for this project to be sidelined. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, 'by February 2000 Boeing, the lead contractor for the missile defence programme, had already given over $290,000 to federal candidates. In the 1998 Congressional election campaign Boeing gave over $660,000. Raytheon, which is building the kill vehicle, has already given $140,000. Lockheed Martin ...$377,000, making it the largest corporate contributor in the country. In the last election cycle it gave more than $1 million.'

    The Cold War was a time when humanity was constantly faced with the prospect of extinction as a result of a nuclear war. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 millions waited for air raid sirens that would signal the end of the world. During the 1980s US generals speculated about the possibility of fighting a 'limited nuclear war' in Europe while stationing cruise missiles in Britain. Now the introduction of NMD could be the most dangerous phase yet of the nuclear arms race.

    Throughout those years people all over the world rejected the prospect of nuclear annihilation. They started as small groups but became movements involving millions. Many made connections between global military power and global corporate power. Now a new protest movement is required to challenge both NMD and the crazy logic of the system which created it.

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