These three works deal with aspects of what will be a crucial problem of the next generation: the exploitation of space travel and its effect on the arms race. Daniel Graham’s High Frontier advocates convincingly an all-out space effort for both military and economic purposes. James Canan’s book is a straight reportorial account of the American side of the arms race and the military aspects of space. Thomas Karas, while giving a comparable description of the military in space, pours cold water on the ideas expressed by Graham and other space-power advocates.
It is no accident that High Frontier has the same title as Gerard K. O’Neill’s splendid exploration of the prospects for space industrialization and colonization by the development of orbiting settlements. O’Neill envisages the eventual use of lunar and asteroid sources of raw materials in space to develop whole new industries and energy supplies. Eventually, perhaps, most of earth’s industry could move out into space. General Graham looks toward a similar future, though his attention is focused on the first stages of O’Neill’s projected scheme—with a heavy dash of political realism. O’Neill looks forward to space as a demilitarized field of purely civilian progress. Graham regards it as an inevitable arena of military competition.
But that is not necessarily a bad thing. For, Graham argues, space may be the means of breaking the United States, and humanity as a whole, out of the doctrine designated by the acronym MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction). MAD is based on the thesis that nuclear war will inevitably lead to the destruction of both sides. No effective strategic defense is possible, or perhaps even desirable, and the attempt to build a defense against nuclear attack will merely “destabilize” the situation. No first strike can cripple the opposing side enough to remove the threat of retaliation, so a war of aggression by the Soviets is impossible. The safest situation is one wherein both sides recognize that they can destroy each other and are content with this situation. Though MAD proponents don’t quite claim we are living in the best of all possible worlds, some of their notions imply it.
It is an open question whether the insane situation described as MAD is simply a logical result—more precisely a natural stage—of the nuclear-arms race, or simply the result of a stupid doctrine which could and should have been wholly avoided. Graham seems to incline toward the latter view. Whatever the truth of this assessment, however, MAD is now clearly obsolete as a doctrine, or a description. Multiple warheads, super-accurate guidance systems, and the Soviet buildup have made a successful Soviet first strike against America’s land-based missiles feasible.
For Graham, the answer to the threat is not the development of new offensive weapons systems, but the resumption by our military forces. of something resembling their traditional function. Instead of regarding the American civilian population as hostages doomed to annihilation if somebody is sufficiently aggressive, we should try to defend ourselves. The first step is a “quick fix,” the development of a “point defense” of our missile bases by ground-based devices using currently available technology. This would throw a degree of uncertainty into Soviet calculations and deter a Soviet first strike in the near future. A number of alternative systems are possible, including one adapting a rapid-fire antitank weapon already carried by Air Force planes. The next steps involve the creation of two successive “generations” of space-based general defensive systems. Ultimately a network of orbital energy weapons—probably lasers—would protect us.
All these programs, Graham argues, should be tied together and developed in concert with the drive for the economic utilization of space. The development of a replacement for the shuttle and a military space-plane are required. These High Frontier programs should be managed in a new way and freed of the inefficiency of bureaucratic red tape. This inefficiency—amply documented by James Canan—is not only deplorably wasteful but incredibly dangerous. The time span for the development of new weapons systems is now an average of 13 years as compared to four to six years in the 1950’s, and the difference cannot be accounted for just by the increasing complexity of weapons.
The specifics of Graham’s program may not be valid—and it is clear that there are a lot of difficulties to be overcome in making energy weapons work and protecting them from attack—but the High Frontier idea is one of very few positive answers offered for our country’s defense problems. It provides the opportunity to use our country’s strength—the lead in space technology and its capabilities in microelectronics. And, unlike other defense programs, it may aid economic recovery. Thus, the concepts presented in High Frontier are worthy of the closest and most careful examination.
Canan’s War in Space is of value to anyone interested in a brief, clear account of military space developments and how some of our strategic-arms policies were formulated under the last few Presidents (an interesting, though not very comforting, story). While Canan does not definitely favor space-based antiballistic missile defense, he does cite facts that seem to favor Graham’s ideas. For example, he notes that the Soviets are not averse to contemplating strategic defense. There are indications that the Soviets are ahead of us in work on particle-beam weapons. They may already have tested a primitive form of an antisatellite “battle station” armed with interceptor rockets.
Thomas Karas is no enthusiast for moving into space in a military way. Karas’s book, in fact, is an interesting example of a syndrome identified by Graham: the inclination to dismiss all ideas for strategic defense as unworkable and unworthy, because no defense is ever going to be utterly impregnable. It is also an example of liberal ritualism at work, the repetition of fashionable beliefs that are treated as axiomatic when they are actually very doubtful. Predictably, Karas treats MAD as neither a transient situation nor a doctrine—it is an objective, practically unchangeable condition. Karas claims that “The myth that MAD has been the central principle of U.S. nuclear strategy is traceable to the unrelenting hostility felt by military hardliners, in and out of uniform, toward Robert McNamara.” McNamara and his aides, Karas asserts, “have never been forgiven for their attempt to impose managerial rationality on the previously intuitive art of military decisionmaking.” It may be a surprise to historians to learn that military decisions were based on intuition before the 1960’s. Some of McNamara’s own policies suggest intuition at work, e.g., his announcement in 1963 that we would be out of Vietnam by 1965 and his later assurance that the Soviets would not catch up with or overtake the American missile lead.
Karas does mention some of the possible countermeasures to laser weapons, such as protective coatings for warheads. He prefers to resort to the fashionable dictums: “space laser weapons will not protect us from the threat of nuclear war.” Rather, they “offer an excellent opportunity for preventive arms control.” Moreover, ‘”with or without new space systems, we can’t win a nuclear war.” Unfortunately, in the present situation, the issue is not whether we can win a nuclear war, but preventing the Soviets from doing so. They, after all, not we, seem to have the equipment and the willingness to launch nuclear aggression. The unwinnability of nuclear war is not a law of nature but the result of a particular situation, one which may now be passing into history. Whether its disappearance will mean more danger for us or less is still unclear and may yet be affected by our actions. The notion that we can rely on arms-control agreements with a party of proven untrustworthiness and aggressive intent to get us out of our dilemma is absurd. It merely shows, again, that some people have learned nothing from the history of the last 40 years, or that fraud known as “détente.”