The press had lots of fun with the
recent robot debacle in California's Mojave Desert.
Competing for US$1 million in prize money, 15 vehicles
headed off on a 142-mile (229-kilometer) course through
some of the most forbidding terrain in the United
States. None managed to navigate even eight miles
(13km). The robots hit
fences, caught fire, rolled over,
or sat and did nothing.
However, the purpose of
the event was not NASCAR (National Association for Stock
Car Auto Racing) for nerds but a coldly calculated plan
to construct a generation of killer machines.
Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA), the March 13 "race" was part of
the US Department of Defense's (DOD's) plan to make
one-third of the military's combat vehicles driverless
by 2015. The push to replace soldiers with machines is
impelled by an over-extended military searching for ways
to limit US casualties, a powerful circle of arms
manufactures, and an empire-minded group of politicians
addicted to campaign contributions by defense
This "rise of the machines" is at
the heart of President George W Bush's recent military
budget. Sandwiched into outlays for aircraft, artillery
and conventional weapons are monies for unmanned combat
aircraft, robot tanks, submarines and a supersonic
bomber capable of delivering six tons of bombs and
missiles to any place on the globe within two hours.
Techno-war DARPA, the agency behind
these Buck Rogers weapons systems, has a mixed track
record, somewhere between silly and sobering. The
mechanical elephant it developed for the Vietnam War was
not a keeper, and one doubts that the robot canine for
the army, aptly dubbed "Big Dog", will ever get off the
drawing boards. But DARPA also gave us stealth
technology, such as the M-16 rifle, cruise missiles and
the unmanned Predator armed with the deadly Hellfire
It is currently deploying a
carbon-dioxide laser to spot snipers in Iraq, as well as
a "sonic" weapon that can supposedly disable
demonstrators at 274 meters with a 145-decibel blast of
Boeing is busy testing its UCAV X-45A
unmanned combat aircraft for DARPA, while Northrop
Grumman is working on a competitor, the X-47A Pegasus.
DARPA has already field-tested the A-160 Hummingbird, an
unmanned chopper for the Marine Corps that can carry 136
kilograms of missiles up to 2,500 miles.
According to Representative Curt Weldon, a
Republican from Pennsylvania and chair of the House
subcommittee on procurements, one-third of US
tactical-strike aircraft will be unmanned within the
next 10 years. Already Boeing and defense contractor
Lockheed Martin, along with Carnegie Mellon University,
are developing ground combat vehicles: the Gladiator,
the Retiarius and the Spinner.
interest is in part a function of the Vietnam syndrome;
lots of aluminum caskets and weeping survivors play
poorly on the evening news. While so far in the Iraq
conflict the Bush administration has managed to keep
these images at arm's length by simply banning the media
from filming C-130s disgorging the wounded and the
slain, as casualty lists grow longer, that will get
harder to do.
The lure of being able to fight a
war without getting your own people killed is a
seductive one. "It is possible that in our lifetime we
will be able to run a conflict without ever leaving the
United States," Lieutenant-Colonel David Branham told
the New York Times last year.
machine war would allow the United States to strike
quickly over enormous distances, an important capability
in the Bush administration's preemptive war strategy.
Project Falcon, under development by Lockheed
Martin and Northrop Grumman, is a case in point. While
the press has billed the recent successful test of the
X-43 Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle with its scramjet as a
boon to commercial aircraft - 40 minutes from Washington
to Paris - DARPA has something a good deal more sinister
"The X-43 has everything to do with
defense and very little to do with aerospace," Paul
Beaver, defense analyst for Ashbourne Beaver Associates,
told the Financial Times. "But if it can be dressed up
as a commercial aerospace program it allows NASA
[National Aeronautics and Space Administration] more
access to funding."
Such a bomber - manned or
unmanned - could strike a target anywhere on the globe
within two hours. The revolutionary scramjet can
accelerate an aircraft to 10 times the speed of sound,
making it virtually invulnerable.
inordinately large section of Bush's military budget
will end up in the coffers of the "Big Five" - Lockheed
Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon and General
Dynamics. But unraveling that budget is no easy task.
The budget request for fiscal 2005 is $401.7
billion, a 9.7 percent jump, but there are a host of
programs hidden in other budgets. For instance, the
$401.7 billion figure doesn't include $18.5 billion for
nuclear weapons, because that expense is tucked away in
the Department of Energy budget. Homeland Security, and
related programs in Transportation, Justice, State and
the Treasury, add another $42.5 billion. What should
also be included are the Department of Veterans Affairs
($50.9 billion) as well as the interest on
defense-related debt ($138.7 billion).
administration has already informed Congress that it
intends to ask for a $50 billion supplement for the wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan (it got $62.6 billion last
spring and $87 billion in November). Hit the add button,
and the military budget looks more like $702.3 billion.
That's real money.
Troops left out
But not for the troops. The average front-line
trooper makes $16,000 a year, the same as a Wal-Mart
clerk, and according to a study by Nickel and
Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, more than 25,000
military families are eligible for food stamps
(government-issued coupons that can be redeemed for food
at stores). The new budget will raise wages 3.5 percent,
but most of that hike will go to the high-tech air force
(9.6 percent), not the larger army (1.8 percent).
The arms corporations are another matter.
Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman will corner
one out of every four of those dollars.
are other spigots besides the military budget that pour
money into the coffers of the Big Five. The big winners
in NASA's budget boost will be Boeing, Lockheed Martin,
Northrop Grumman and TRW - all major space contractors.
This generosity is repaid come election day. In
the 2002 election cycle, defense firms, led by Lockheed
Martin and Northrop Grumman, poured more than $16
million into Political Action Committees (PAC) at a
ratio of 65 percent for Republicans and 35 percent for
Democrats. According to the Center for Responsive
Politics, those figures appear to be holding in the
run-up to the 2004 elections as well.
collusion among politicians, the military and the
defense firms is particularly egregious in the
administration's race to deploy an anti-ballistic
missile (ABM) system. The ABM soaked up 15 percent of
the $43.1 billion slated for weapons development in 2003
- 60 percent of which went to Lockheed Martin, Boeing
and Raytheon - and it is getting a major boost in the
The hemorrhaging of money by the ABM
has churned up opposition from current and former
military leaders. Led by retired Admiral William Crowe,
former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 48 admirals
and generals recently urged that the administration halt
deploying the ABM and instead divert the $53 billion
slated to be spent on the system over the next five
years to protecting the nation's ports from terrorism.
While the military budget and ancillary programs
continue to balloon, domestic spending will rise a tepid
0.5 percent; the White House is highlighting its plan to
raise education spending by 3 percent, but that will
only mean a jump of $1.6 billion, less than the cost of
a single Northrop Grumman B-2 bomber.
that think and kill are expensive, and very few
companies have the wherewithal to make them on the scale
needed for the United States to continue its imperial
reach. The synergy among the massive companies that
benefit from empire, and their ability to fill the
election coffers of those who dream of a world more akin
to the 19th than the 21st century, are powerful.
Bloodless war? Add to that a military
beset by re-enlistment difficulties, and the circle
comes complete: war that is costly, but for our side,
largely bloodless - a virtual war.
is, of course, an illusion. More than 600 American
solders have died in Iraq, and thousands of others have
been wounded and maimed. No one knows how many thousands
of Iraqis have died, because, as Lieutenant-Commander
Jane Campbell told the New York Times, "We don't keep a
list. It's just not policy."
In his book
Virtual War, historian Michael Ignatieff asks the
question: "If Western nations can employ violence with
impunity, will they not be tempted to use it more
The "impunity", of course, is fantasy.
The US military may indeed be able to kill at enormous
distances with its Frankenstein killing machines. But
all that means is that civilians, not the military,
become targets. Ask the relatives of those who died in
the World Trade Center, the embassy bombings in Kenya
and Tanzania, the nightclub on Bali and the commuter
train in Spain if high-tech war has no casualties.
Conn Hallinan is an analyst for Foreign
Policy in Focusand a provost at the University
of California, Santa Cruz. Posted with permission.