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Eisenhower’s Nightmare: Space Wars Edition

President Donald Trump’s plan [1] to escalate efforts in Ballistic Missile Defense (BDM), including the introduction of space-based weapons, should not be viewed in isolation.

It comes on top of the Defense Department’s plan to execute an across-the-board modernization [2] of all our nuclear strike forces. It comes on top of the expansion of NATO under three presidents, despite earlier promises (here [3] and here [4]) to the contrary. It comes on top of the unilateral decision [5] by President George W. Bush to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002, on top of Trump’s threat [6] to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and on top of Trump’s publication of a more aggressive Nuclear Posture Review [7]. To argue that such a massive effort is directed at deterring Iran or North Korea is ludicrous. Russia and China know who these programs and policies are aimed at.

Viewed through the lens of the precautionary principle, any sensible strategic planner in Russia and China would have no choice but to see these efforts as being a consistent, integrated plan to harden the U.S. nuclear shield while sharpening the U.S. nuclear sword.

Consider that the makeup of the offensive modernization program—i.e., the nuclear sword—includes: 1) increased precision guidance; 2) improved command and control systems; 3) dial-a-yield warheads on nuclear gravity bombs; 4) new families of nuclear warheads for ballistic and cruise missiles; 5) new ICBMs; 6) new air launched cruise missiles; 7) new bombers; 8) new missile-launching submarines; 9) modernized SLBMs; 10) new sea-launched cruise missiles; and 11) new space-based C4ISR systems with the possibility of ASAT capabilities. Taking all of this into account, it is quite obvious that Russian and Chinese war planners will have no choice but to assume the worse about U.S. intentions. Russian and Chinese planners will be forced to assume that Washington is returning to the thoroughly discredited 1970s-era nuclear war-fighting theory of graduated nuclear escalation via the use of a series limited nuclear options, punctuated perhaps by diplomatic signaling. Application of the precautionary principle by Russian and Chinese nuclear war planners would force them to conclude that the U.S. believes it can fight and win a nuclear war regardless of any U.S. protestations about its sword-shield modernization plan being a defensive application of deterrence theory.

Perhaps more importantly, savvy Russian and Chinese political advisors will understand how the flood of money pouring into these sword/shield modernization efforts will paralyze the patronage-addicted U.S. decision-making system. The fact that the multi-billion dollar, failure-prone BMD program continued unabated after the end of the Cold War illustrates the paralyzing staying power of patronage addiction.

The flood of dollars to every congressional district will increase sharply, creating an even more powerful web of political patronage in the form of jobs, corporate profits, and domestic political power. This web will, like its predecessors, lock in the continued funding of these programs for reasons of domestic politics that have nothing to do with the needs of foreign policy. Future political leaders in the United States will be handcuffed into continuing these programs for the reasons President Dwight D. Eisenhower outlined in his Farewell Address [8]—only this time, our future will be Eisenhower’s nightmare on steroids.

Even if Trump has the best of intentions, he and his successors will find it impossible to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, or their successors, that the U.S. political system does not want—or more accurately, does not need—a new Cold War. Given the current chaos in U.S. politics, our adversaries (and perhaps even our allies) may well think that hyping the domestic politics of pervasive unreasoning fear by starting and maintaining a new Cold War is the only way the U.S. political elite can bring order to the increasingly corrupt, chaotic, and dysfunctional political system of their own making.

And in such circumstances, it is hard to see how Trump could convince Putin and Xi that he really wants better relations, when his own government is unleashing uncontrollable domestic patronage forces that will shape U.S. foreign policy for the next 30 to 50 years.

Franklin C. “Chuck” Spinney is a mechanical engineer and analyst who worked as a civilian and military officer in the Pentagon for 31 years, beginning in 1968. He has spent the last several decades as a Pentagon reformer, watchdog, and writer.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Eisenhower’s Nightmare: Space Wars Edition"

#1 Comment By Cornel C Lencar On January 18, 2019 @ 8:34 pm

Posted on Daniel’s relevant article:

Cornel C Lencar says:
January 17, 2019 at 8:40 pm
I see a big problem here, which I am sure the Russians and the Chinese, and probably others caught up immediately.

What if this space defense system is in fact intended to be an offensive system? Having missiles with nuclear tips, hovering at several hundred km above will allow one to do the first strike and then monitor for any signals where retaliatory strike might come, which will be attacked by spaced based missiles coming down on the victim in matters of minutes…

It sounds appealing but it is stupid and Russians have probably thought about this, hence the nuclear submarines, the strategic bombers, the Poseidon system… They have made sure that they will always have the ability to retaliate after a first strike, or what would appear to be a first strike. MAD is well and truly challenged now by the US with its posturing, not with its capabilities.

While in the 1980s people were really fretting about nuclear Megiddo and politicians responded, now large parts of the US media are mum, in fact complicit at this silence – thank you Daniel, thank you TAC for your stance.

#2 Comment By John_M On January 18, 2019 @ 9:03 pm

Bad idea. Really really bad idea.

Roughly 25 years ago I did an engineering evaluation of orbital interceptor platforms for missile interdiction. If I remember properly, it was published in one of the minor American Physical Society special interest newsletters. This was during Reagan’s Star Wars period. I found that it was – barely – possible to build a feasible system against long burn time (5 minute) ICBM’s. I then looked at the cost and sensitivity of the system to burn time including the target acquisition time. The cost of the system was worse than inverse quadratic in the missile burn time – and at the time Martin Marietta had estimated that a single warhead ICBM could be built with a burn time of 50 seconds for a payload penalty of < 25%. It was not, repeat, not possible to build an orbital defense against short burn time boosters – and it would take a long time to set up the defense system – much longer than the time for the opponents to replace their missiles with short burn time missiles.

Putting that much explosive stuff in low earth orbit guarantees an exponential runaway of debris that will make low orbital space useless – it is an issue I studied around 30 years ago – and did some evaluations of dropping a few thousand tonnes of tungsten buckshot into low orbit to trigger the runaway destruction.

And you can sweep low orbital platforms out of orbit with slightly subsurface explosions of really big fusion weapons. As you exceed surface burst yields of 50 Megatonnes, you start to displace the entire atmosphere above the detonation point. With yields several times higher and a lot of water around the launching mass, you can loft enough gravel in front of an orbital platform to destroy it.

Lasers and particle beam technology is not up to the task either.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 19, 2019 @ 2:54 am


We just don’t need space based systems. The disads, far outweigh any benefit.



(I realize that some think the RT to be a Soviet outles involved in undermining the US)

#4 Comment By Todd Pierce On January 19, 2019 @ 10:19 am

This is a must read article and one to be shared widely as it shows which country is truly the one acting as an aggressor in building up its military for offensive operations, not defensive like we see the Russians trying to do in the face our (U.S.) massive buildup. Chuck Spinney was, I believe, the 2d or 3d highest ranking civilian in the Pentagon when he retired, and knows what he speaks of.

#5 Comment By Todd Pierce On January 19, 2019 @ 11:26 am

A correction to my post above. Mr. Spinney wasn’t as high-ranking as I described, though he was at a high level and called upon to testify to Congress as a military reformer, meaning to stop the wasteful and dangerous military spending (my characterization) that had become USG policy. But at least one colleague of his in the military reform movement was at that high level, is my recollection. In any case, Mr. Spinney is exactly on point in this article, in my opinion as a retired military officer, and our perpetual war policies, now with Russia and China clearly in our bomb and missile sights, creates the potential for a nuclear conflagration but without the public awareness of that danger today, that there once was. Mr. Spinney’s article helps build the awareness that the public must have if there is to be any hope of getting war policy out of the hands of our “Militarists.”

#6 Comment By Egypt Steve On January 19, 2019 @ 11:28 am

Eisenhower, Schmeisenhower. Individual 1 knows more than the generals.

#7 Comment By SteveK9 On January 21, 2019 @ 5:49 pm

The Europeans and other nations are populated with human beings … with brains. Is it really inconceivable that they could finally stand up and say enough? How about starting with telling the US that the Russia garbage is convincing no one, and they no longer view Russia (or China) as enemies and will begin acting accordingly. The US is not the World.

#8 Comment By Monkhouse On January 21, 2019 @ 8:13 pm

Whatever happened to the GWOT? Wasn’t that supposed to be the be all and end all of US war after 9/11 (and one could argue, since the USSR collapsed in 1991)? Oh, of course, none of those terrorists had the wherewithal to fight the mighty US war machine, with a real air force, navy, and mechanized army. Even Stratfor was saying, over ten years ago, that the Cold War was back, and that the real enemy was Russia – and China. The GWOT has been revealed as little more than the cover story for the covert Cold War, and now oughta be completely discredited.

#9 Comment By D. Turpin On January 22, 2019 @ 8:11 am

Space war is the last thing this world needs. If we are faced with no other options then we need to keep our knowledge top secret and do a lot better job than what we have done in the past six years. President Trump has given us the direction, we need to follow his lead.

#10 Comment By Ivo Olavo Castro da Silva On January 24, 2019 @ 7:30 am

Regardless of any intention on the part of president Trump, Russia an China are undergoing a large increase and modernization of their nuclear forces. There is NOTHING that the United States can do except do the same. Geopolitics is an unforgiving subject. History provides plenty of that.