TCS Daily


New Military Doctrine Requires a Back-Up Plan in Space

By James Pinkerton - June 18, 2001 12:00 AM

Second of two parts


There's good news and bad news on the defense front. The good news is that President Bush is making slow progress toward missile defense. The bad news is that the world needs rapid progress, because destructive weaponry is outrunning constructive diplomacy; indeed, technology is racing ahead of human history itself.

President Bush made progress in his quest for missile-defense consensus last week during his trip to Europe; even The New York Times allowed as much on Saturday in a story headlined, "Plain-Talking Bush Is Using His Charm on European Stage." Most Western European nations expressed their opposition, while most Eastern European countries expressed their support. Yet a continental flux was evident; even French President Jacques Chirac volunteered that he was "ready to participate actively" in the development of defensive systems, so long as they fit within the framework of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. That stance suggests that the Russians, as the co-signatories of that treaty-if one accepts that Russia today and the Soviet Union of yesterday are in fact the same state-hold the balance of power. And while Bush's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin produced no breakthroughs, both leaders made it clear that their meeting in Slovenia would be just the beginning, as Putin said, of "a very productive dialogue in this area."

Dialogue among nuclear-armed powers is, of course, a good thing. But even better is a plan for dealing with the dangers that come from all the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) piling up around the planet. And so, as noted here last week, that's why nations are looking to evolve beyond the old defense doctrine of deterrence--also known as MAD, for Mutual Assured Destruction--to a new doctrine of defense, which starts with national missile defense (NMD). But more than 50 years of nuclear peace have left the nations of the world-or at least their opinion-leading elites--with little appetite for thinking about the unthinkable. That's why Bush has had so much difficulty with missile defense.

And yet the irony of this public mood of complacency is that at the same time, the private sentiment of military leaders is of rising concern, as they assess growing potential threats--and yet lack the defensive tools they need. As noted here last week, in the absence of a good defense, the only remaining option is a good offense. And so as diplomats continue negotiating arms-control mechanisms, military planners are defaulting toward the mostly unstated doctrine of relying on a pre-emptive strike - PES - against potential enemies.

To put the problem another way, different sectors in society are dealing with different aspects of globalization. Civilians are mostly enjoying the prosperous upside of globalization, while generals are confronting the dangerous downside. But so long as the downside threat is hypothetical-that is, until a city gets nuked or otherwise WMD'ed--who wants to listen to strategists talk about long-term dangers and long-term solutions?

The best solution, of course, is for leaders to encourage an informed debate about future dangers, so as to develop an informed democratic consensus about future solutions.

They might start debating, for instance, Fermi's Paradox. The Italian-born Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938, played a pivotal role in America's Manhattan Project. Having helped build the first nuclear weapon, Fermi was haunted, for the rest of his life, by the implications of WMDs for the human prospect.

In 1950 he looked up at the night sky and thought to himself that surely, somewhere amidst all those stars, there must be many other life-supporting planets. And yet if so, he wondered, where are they? Why haven't they landed on the White House lawn? This gap-yawning between the theoretical potential for life around the universe and the apparent absence of such life-became Fermi's Paradox.

Various possible answers to Fermi present themselves. It could be, for example, that the alien life forms have developed, but they are so far ahead of us that we can't detect them. Or maybe they have chosen to ignore us so as not to interfere with our development. Another possibility is that we are the aliens; that is, the ET's landed long ago, so long ago that we forgot all about them.

But the most obvious explanation is that we are simply alone in the universe. But if so, how did the universe get so lonely? After all, astronomers estimate that there are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and that the universe overall is 200 billion times larger than that. If even one in every million stars had a planet, and if even one in a million of those planets sustained life, then there would be millions of civilizations across the universe.

Fermi, thinking back to his own atomic background, wondered if maybe cosmic history played a kind of cruel joke on its evolving inhabitants. That is, civilizations would grow up to the point that they could generate substantial technology-and then they would use that technology to blow themselves up. No wonder we can't find them. That's an incredibly grim explanation, but it makes as much sense as any other.

If everybody knew about Fermi's Paradox-and then considered this unhappy conclusion-a few positive courses of action would become clear. First, the value of defense, including missile defense, would be underscored. But in addition, since even a missile-defensed world would still be subject to Murphy's Law-that is, what can go wrong will go wrong--people would realize that it's a mistake to put all their human eggs in one basket. In other words, just as every technology should have a back-up plan, so, too, should every society.

Huh? Every society should have a back-up plan?

Absolutely. Spaceship earth is a tiny sphere, less than 8,000 miles in diameter, floating in a universe that stretches for some 15 billion light years. Is it really sound strategy for the species to entrust our fate to this fragile little globe-this "pale blue dot," as the late Carl Sagan called it? Indeed, in his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Sagan surveyed all the dangers to the earth-including also the eventual certainty of a "deep impact" from a comet or asteroid-and concluded, "In the long term, even if we were not the descendants of professional wanderers, even if we were not inspired by exploratory passions, some of us would still have to leave the Earth--simply to ensure the survival of all of us."

Yes, earth has been a wonderful home to all of us, but what home lasts forever? And thus the fourth doctrine of defense-after MAD, NMD, and PES-is, or should be, ETR, for extra-terrestrial relocation.

ETR doesn't mean giving up on earth; it means duplicating earth, by sending volunteers permanently to the moon, Mars, wherever. Would folks want to go? Would governments want to pay for it? It all depends upon how much time they spend thinking about Murphy's Law and Fermi's Paradox.
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