WASHINGTON — Among the phrases of contrition rarely uttered by the federal underwriters of private-industry research and development is we’ve created a monster.The self-contradictory angst of the Oppenheimer era — part of Angelo Codevilla’s look back at the father of the H-bomb (“The Teller Tragedy,” forthcoming October TAS) — will not be rehearsed in the new field of government-sponsored cloning.The subsidy of those monstrous factories has been left up to South Korea. But when the ground is clearer of moral thickets, dollar signs sprout up like mushrooms, and in its relationship with two big-budget industries — applied space and military technology — Washington has put paid to its long-held faith that money grows on trees. Starry-eyed eggheads and weapons geeks have convinced the government for years that purposeless space shuttling and newfangled contraptions deserve open-ended, multimillion-dollar taxpayer commitments. In the first case, the result of such spending has proven itself a distraction and a disappointment; in the second, it’s a deadline for disaster.
The trouble, alas, isn’t of the sort observed when quixotic or silly research is handed a surplus of funding by credulous bureaucrats.The problem is the sharper one of that process tapping and unleashing violent advances in human power that will destabilize the world as much as the development of nuclear weapons did some 60 years ago. The Pentagon has already given up on previous late-’90s projects — among them, a weapon that summons vermin to swarm the enemy, an agent with the power to inflict profound halitosis, and a battlefield aphrodisiac designed to incapacitate (and demoralize) foes by making them helplessly mutually attractive. But military planners, moving on in their wisdom to the seemingly traditional goal of shooting one’s adversaries, have set their hearts on ray guns.
Bullets, it seems, are so 20th century.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF HELs — High Energy Lasers — has already glimpsed the size threshold for deployment on the wings of fighter aircraft. But the biggest promise in sci-fi munitions is shown by another sort of ray gun, “directed-energy weapons” (DEWs). Advantage number one of DEWs is their convenience. DEWs require only an electrical supply to generate both power and ammunition and minimize inaccurate targeting. Gone will be the costly and messy process of loading, reloading, and aiming without full technological guidance.
Advantage two (as we proceed further along the axis of the sinister) is diversity. The lethality of DEWs can be adjusted finely and coarsely; one can give a target the feeling of “broom bristles” for an instant or for longer (provided enough electricity), or one can give that same target instant death. More baroque variations are possible: DEWs can heat the moisture just under the skin, presumably to the full extent of evaporation. DEWs can be set for a few seconds of pain that won’t linger, but wait a second longer and that damage becomes, well, permanent. And the damage we speak of comes with a universal adapter — it works on buildings as well as people, individuals as well as crowds, plant life as well as animal.
The third, most distressing advantage, making full use of the previous two, is the extraordinary, superhuman battlefield dominance that any army or individual utilizing advanced DEWs can attain. DEWs can pass through walls, traveling a distance of dozens of miles to hit hapless targets with an accuracy “so surgical that, as some designers put it… the military could plausibly deny responsibility.” Oh, and one other thing: don’t bother trying to run when you’ve been locked onto by a DEW. The beam headed straight for you travels at the speed of light.
IT’S EASY TO THINK that the more powerful the American military, the more powerful America. But the durability of international peace and security, and the safety of Americans here and abroad, will be entirely contingent upon the ability of the U.S. military to maintain a monopoly on the production of DEWs and to quarantine their control. The impulse to sell DEWs, even to allies, will have to be resisted, despite the certainty of allied governments that the latest leap of technology in warfare will simply have to share in its wealth to preserve their global stature.
Spies will have to be kept out of the henhouse, scientists kept under lock and key. Self-destruct mechanisms must be built into all but the most mundane DEWs, because captured weapons will be almost as useful to reverse engineers as the stolen, downloaded, or borrowed blueprints that will presage the sudden appearance of killer knockoffs. And don’t think that everyone lucky enough to join the DEW club by hook or by crook will endure the same self-styled luxuries of ethics that we do.
It’s called blowback — the phenomenon of punishing consequences resulting from one’s own wrongheaded actions. The sentimental rush to get science “back into space” (justifying its budget) forced us into near-blowback of the most literal sort, diverted by providence alone. And the development and fielding of DEWs is, similarly, an invitation to disaster in the grandest style. Much in the same way that the Pandora’s box of cloning can use the tool of biological science to pry open a posthuman nightmare, so too can the advancements of mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering create their own encyclopedic, uncontrollable harms. Hackers say “information wants to be free,” and nowhere in history has this maxim more often held true than in the field of military technology. Only a handful of powers need the best weapons to throw civilization into crisis — perhaps not constant crisis, perhaps not instant crisis, yet crisis enough to substitute the old threat of Mutual Assured Destruction with the more sporadic but less routine Random Catastrophic Destruction.
IT ISN’T WORTH IT. Just as the facile satisfaction of our petri-dish hubris isn’t worth a fleet of shuttles that never leave orbit, our battlefield effectiveness is not so poor as to require the shift toward microwaving our enemies. The cost of waging modern war is not so high that we need DEWs to save our bottom line — Iraq and Afghanistan have been less of a financial burden than Korea was at its time. And ray guns are more expensive to buy and replace than conventional weapons. Our federally subsidized research and development industries are not like sharks that will die unless they move constantly forward. They are more like beasts without heads, their agendas fallen into the hands of people as obsessed with Progress in gadgets as some are entranced by the perpetual progress of social justice.
We’re used to a space program that pursues advancement without regard to advantage. The NASA that now hopes to impress us with a new space capsule and fresh ambitions has a hard sell ahead of it — any space program more concerned with fulfilling garbage duty at the international space station than with putting an American on Mars has bigger problems than faulty foam. And we’re still used to the Pentagon, by contrast, as an institution of conservative thinking in the practical, risk-averse, Powell Doctrine sense — amassing proven weaponry and maintaining battlefield dominance by the refinement of existing techniques and technology. The allure of “next generation” arms has belonged mainly to the Air Force, where stealth technology made good on its promises.
But now, conflating new ideas with good ideas, the Department of Defense has taken us far afield from cutting-edge improvements on trusty tools like guns, tanks, planes, boats, and missiles. In the Pentagon’s present flirtation with microwave weapons, our armed forces are being teleported — deliberately and expensively — into the realm of science fiction. Our present willingness to spend tens of millions of dollars over a score of years to indulge the whims of the techno-interests and lay claim to the prerogatives of Zeus has left us blind — not from the brilliant flash of genius and accomplishment, but the old false promise of thinking tomorrow better simply for coming after today.