Rise of the Machines

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press had lots of fun with the recent robot debacle in the Mojave
Desert. Competing for $1 million in prize money, 15 vehicles headed
off on a 142-mile course through some of the most forbidding terrain
in the country. None managed to navigate even eight miles. The robots
hit fences, caught fire, rolled over, or sat and did nothing.

However, the purpose of the event was not NASCAR for nerds, but
a coldly calculated plan to construct a generation of killer machines.

Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA),
the Mar. 13 “race” was part of the Department of Defense’s
(DOD) 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 overextended military searching for ways to limit
U.S. casualties, a powerful circle of arms manufactures, and an
empire-minded group of politicians addicted to campaign contributions
by defense corporations.

This “rise of the machines” is at the heart of the Bush
administration’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 anyplace
on the globe in two hours.


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, the M-16 rifle, cruise missiles,
and the unmanned Predator armed with the deadly Hellfire Missile.

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 300 yards with a 145-decibel blast of sound.

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 Marines that can carry 300 pounds of missiles
up to 2,500 miles.

According to US Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), chair of the House Subcommittee
on Procurements, one-third of US tactical-strike aircraft will be
unmanned within the next 10 years.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing, along with Carnegie Mellon University
, are developing ground combat vehicles: the Gladiator, the Retiarius,
and the Spinner.

The military’s interest is in part a function of the Vietnam
Syndrome: lots of aluminum caskets and weeping survivors play poorly
on the six o’clock news. While so far 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 grows 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,” Lt. Col. David Branham told the New York Times
last year.

A high-tech machine war would allow the US to quickly strike over
enormous distances, an important capability in the Bush administration’s
preemptive war strategy.

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 in mind.

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

An 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% jump,
but there are a host of programs hidden in other budgets. For instance,
the $401.7 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

The 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,
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. The new budget will raise
wages 3.5%, but most of that hike will go to the high-tech Air Force
(9.6%), not the larger Army (1.8%).

The arms corporations are another matter. Lockheed Martin, Boeing,
and Northrop Grumman will corner one out of every four of those

There 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 over $16 million into Political Action Committees (PAC) at
a ratio of 65% for Republicans and 35% 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.

The collusion between politicians, the military, and the defense
firms is particularly egregious in the administration’s race
to deploy an antiballistic missile (ABM) system. The ABM soaked
up 15% of the $43.1 billion slated for weapons development in 2003
– 60% of which went to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon
– and it is getting a major boost in the new budget.

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%; the White House is highlighting
its plan to raise education spending by 3%, but that will only mean
a jump of $1.6 billion, less than the cost of a single Northrop
Grumman B-2 bomber.

Machines that think and kill are expensive, and very few companies
have the wherewithal to make them on the scale needed for the US
to continue its imperial reach. The synergy between 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, is a powerful one.  

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.

Bloodless war is, of course, an illusion. More than 600 US 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 Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell told the New York Times, “We
don’t keep a list. It’s just not policy.”

In his book Virtual
, historian Michael Ignatieff asks the question: “If
western nations can employ violence with impunity, will they not
be tempted to use it more often?”

The “impunity,” of course, is fantasy. Our 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 Twin Towers, the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the
nightclub on Bali, and the commuter train in Spain if high-tech
war has no casualties.

12, 2004

Hallinan is an analyst for Foreign
Policy in Focus
and a provost at UC Santa Cruz. Posted with
permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.


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