There’s that classic line of career advice to the confused young hero of the 1967 film The Graduate: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word plastics.” With the perspective of a few extra decades under our belts (or beltways), that word probably should have been “arms.” After all, what a couple of weeks it’s been for Washington’s war industries: the Pentagon announced the resumption of military aid to Guatemala after 15 years (can weapons be far behind?) as well as, after another 15-year hiatus, the prospective sale of a first batch of F-16s the latest version of the plane and a lovely big-ticket item evidently capable of carrying nuclear weapons India-wards to the Pakistanis in appreciation for their help in the borderlands (thanks, thanks, for the memories ). It also released a major document, the National Defense Strategy, pledging us to war, war, war till hell freezes over and, both in the document and elsewhere, signaling a new push for the militarization of space, guaranteed to enable “us to project power anywhere in the world from secure bases of operation.” (If you launch it, can the biggest ticket weapons be far behind?)
The week’s cautionary note: Donald Rumsfeld’s urge to create the highest-tech military in anyone’s history may have a few bugs, according to the superb Tim Weiner in a front-page piece for the New York Times ("An Army Program to Build a High-Tech Force Hits Costly Snags"). The vast program, called Future Combat Systems and overseen by Boeing (which is being paid $21 billion for the honor), is supposed to be “a seamless web of 18 different sets of networked weapons and military robots,” including tanks so stripped down in terms of armoring that they can be flown instantly onto the battlefield. The program, initially only meant to arm 15 brigades or about 3,000 soldiers is, Army officials told Weiner, “a technological challenge as complicated as putting an astronaut on the moon.” And as Paul L. Francis, the acquisition and sourcing management director for the Government Accountability Office commented, it is “a network of 53 crucial technologies and 52 are unproven.”
Think our Star Wars missile-defense system that, endless billions of dollars later, in test after test against mock-enemy missiles turns out to be incapable of hitting the broad side of a barn. Already, the crucial Joint Tactical Radio Systems, known as JTRS (or “jitters”), which is slated to link the robots and humans of Future Combat Systems into one battlefield Megatron-like beast, doesn’t work, and production on the first set of radios has been halted.
Speaking of “jitters,” congressional supporters of just about any Pentagon weapons system that comes down the pike, are getting edgy indeed when it comes to Future Combat Systems, which, at an estimated $145 billion or more, threatens to burst the congressional piggy bank something of a Bush administration specialty in so many different areas. (Best line in the Weiner piece: “They said this month that they did not know if they could build a tank light enough to fly.” I thought the line was “if pigs could fly,” but I stand corrected.)
And, the money thing aside, here’s the rub one of them anyway: sometimes the only effective defense against the highest-tech levels of warfare turns out to be the lowest levels of the same. Remember the salutary tale of the wonderfully named Marine General Paul van Riper (okay, it’s not Ripper, but close), who commanded the enemy “red army” in the military’s Millennium Challenge ’02 war games in 2002? These maneuvers involved a war in a fictitiously named Persian Gulf country that resembled Iraq. The games were carefully scripted to prove the efficacy of a Rumsfeld-style high-tech army. Unfortunately, Gen. van Riper stepped outside the script and, using such simple devices the sort now undoubtedly being employed by the Iraqi insurgency as “motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to Red troops, thereby eluding Blue’s super-sophisticated eavesdropping technology,” he trumped the techies. “At one point in the game, when Blue’s fleet entered the Persian Gulf, he sank some of the ships with suicide-bombers in speed boats. (At that point, the managers stopped the game, ‘refloated’ the Blue fleet, and resumed play.)” He was reprimanded and finally quit in protest. But someone with the last couple of years in Iraq in mind should have paid the man some mind.
Perhaps that’s why our secretary of defense, responsible for sending those F-16s to Pakistan, has been in a panic over the fact that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s government recently bought 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles. Little Venezuela’s purchase of 1940’s-era-design rifles has Rummy in a tizzy; and, for all the high-tech goodies at his command, not without reason. The insurgency in Iraq has demonstrated that a relatively small force of lightly armed insurgents in an area roughly the size of California can bog down, stretch to the limit, and effectively counterbalance for two years the might of the U.S. military, despite its trillions of dollars worth of satellites, armor, artillery, air power, futuristic weapons, and old-fashioned bullets.
Two years on, as faithful readers of Juan Cole’s indispensable Informed Comment blog can attest, Iraq’s anti-occupation movement shows few signs of slowing. Right now, it’s keeping up a steady pace of 50 to 60 attacks a day, despite frequent cheery pronouncements on our evening news and in the press about “tipping points” (known back in Vietnam days as “progress” or “the crossover point,” or the infamous “light at the end of the tunnel”).
Take, as USA Today‘s Steven Komarow reports, the military’s Abrams tank: “[D]esigned during the Cold War to withstand the fiercest blows from the best Soviet tanks, [it] is getting knocked out at surprising rates by the low-tech bombs and rocket-propelled grenades of Iraqi insurgents. In the all-out battles of the 1991 Gulf War, only 18 Abrams tanks were lost and no soldiers in them killed. But since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, with tanks in daily combat against the unexpectedly fierce insurgency, the Army says 80 of the 69-ton behemoths have been damaged so badly they had to be shipped back to the United States.”
Nick Turse reminds us below that, however bad the times may be for American tanks or troops, it’s springtime for ever conglomerating American munitions makers. For them, and not just for the makers of the most futuristic weaponry either, the future beckons like a soaring Pentagon budget, like a strobe light at the end of an ever darkening tunnel. After all, as Guy Dinsmore of the Financial Times reported just the other day ("U.S. Draws Up List of Unstable Countries"):
“The U.S. intelligence community is drawing up a secret watch-list of 25 countries where instability might precipitate U.S. intervention, according to officials in charge of a new [State Department] office set up to coordinate planning for nation-building and conflict prevention. Conceived out of the acknowledged failure of postwar reconstruction efforts in Iraq, the new State Department office amounts to recognition by the Bush administration that it needs to get better at nation-building a concept it once scorned as social work disguised as foreign policy.”
And keep in mind that that’s just what’s happening in the once-scorned State Department on a budget of virtual pennies. Don’t even think about the interventionary planning going on in a place where you can imagine producing weaponry systems based on 52 unproven technologies. Tom
If You Build It, They Will Kill
U.S. military weaponry of the near future
by Nick Turse
Let’s face it, making war is fast superseding sports as the American national pastime. Since 1980, overtly or covertly, the United States has been involved in military actions in Grenada, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Liberia, Sudan, the Philippines, Colombia, Haiti (again), Afghanistan (again), and Iraq (again), and that’s not even the full list. It stands to reason when the voracious appetites of the military-corporate complex are in constant need of feeding.
As representatives of a superpower devoted to (and enamored with) war, it’s hardly surprising that the Pentagon and allied corporations are forever planning more effective ways to kill, maim, and inflict pain or that they plan to keep it that way. Whatever the wars of the present, elaborate weapons systems for future wars are already on the drawing boards. Planning for the projected fighter-bombers and laser weapons of the decades from 2030 to 2050 is underway. Meanwhile, at the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) blue-skies research outfit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), even wilder projects from futuristic exoskeletons to Brain/Machine Interface initiatives are being explored.
Such projects, as flashy as they are frightening, are magnets for reporters (and writers like yours truly), but it’s important not to lose sight of the many more mundane weapons currently being produced that will be pressed into service in the nearer term in Iraq, Afghanistan, or some other locale the U.S. decides to add to the list of nations where it will turn people into casualties or “collateral damage” in the next few years. These projects aren’t as sexy as building future robotic warriors, but they’re at least as dangerous and deadly, so let’s take a quick look at a few of the weapons our tax dollars are supporting today, before they hurt, maim, and kill tomorrow.
Set Phasers on Extreme Pain
Recently, the Air Force Research Laboratory called for “research in support of the Directed Energy Bioeffects Division of the Human Effectiveness Directorate.” The researchers were to “conduct innovative research on the effects of directed energy technologies” on people and animals. What types of innovative research? One area involved identifying “biological tissue thresholds (minimum visible lesion) and damage mechanisms from laser and non-laser sources.” In other words, how excruciating can you make it without leaving telltale thermal burns? And a prime area of study? “Pain thresholds.” Further, there was a call for work to: “Determine the effects of electromagnetic and biomechanical insults on the human-body.” Sounds like something out of Star Trek, right? Weaponry of the distant future? Think again.
In a TomDispatch piece last spring, I mentioned a “painful energy beam” weapon, the Active Denial System, that was about to be field-tested by the military. Recent reports indicate that military Humvees will be outfitted with exactly this weapon by the end of the year.
I’m sad to report that the Active Denial System isn’t the only futuristic weapon set to be deployed in the near-term. Pulsed Energy Projectiles (PEPs) are also barreling down the weaponry-testing turnpike. They are part of a whole new generation of weapons systems that the Pentagon promotes under the label “non-lethal.” The term conveniently obscures the fact that such weapons are meant to cause intense physical agony without any of the normal physical signs of trauma. (This, by the way, should make them or their miniaturized descendants excellent devices for clandestine torture.)
Peps utilize bursts of electrically charged gas (plasma) that yield an electromagnetic pulse on impact with a solid object. Such pulses affect nerve cells in humans (and animals) causing searing pain. Peps are designed to inflict “excruciating pain from up to 2 kilometers away.” No one knows the long-term physical or psychological effects of this weapon, which is set to roll out in 2007 and is designed specifically to be employed against unruly civilians. But let’s remember, the Pentagon isn’t the Food and Drug Administration. No need to test for future effects when it comes to weapons aimed at someone else.
20th Century Weaponry for 21st Century Killing
Just recently, the Department of Defense’s Defense Contracting Command-Washington put out a call for various technologies capable of “near-immediate transition to operations/production at the completion of evaluation.” In other words, make it snappy.
In addition to a plethora of high-tech devices, from laser-sights for weapons to battlefield computers, the U.S. Special Operations Forces had a special request: 40mm rifle-launched flechette grenades. For the uninitiated, flechettes are razor-sharp deadly darts with fins at their blunt ends. During the Vietnam War, flechette weaponry was praised for its ability to shred people alive and virtually nail them to trees. The question is, where will those Special Ops forces use the grenades and which people will be torn to bits by a new generation of American flechettes? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain it will happen.
The Special Ops troops aren’t the only ones with special requests. The Army has also put out a call to arms. While Army officials recently hailed the M240B 7.62mm Medium Machine Gun as providing “significantly improved reliability and more lethal medium-support fire to ground units,” they just issued a contract to FN Manufacturing Inc. produce a lighter-weight, hybrid titanium/steel variant of the weapon (known as the M240E6). And these are just a few of the new and improved weapons systems being readied to be rushed onto near-future American battlefields.
Obviously, the military is purchasing guns and other weapons for a reason: to injure, maim, and kill. But the extent of the killing being planned for can only be grasped if one examines the amounts of ammunition being purchased. Let’s look at recent DoD contracts awarded to just one firm Alliant Lake City Small Caliber Ammunition Company, L.L.C., a subsidiary of weapons-industry giant Alliant Techsystems (ATK):
Awarded Nov. 24, 2004: “a delivery order amount of $231,663,020 as part of a $303,040,883 firm-fixed-price contract for various Cal .22, Cal .30, 5.56mm, and 7.62mm small caliber ammunition cartridges.” Work is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2006.
Awarded February 7, 2005: “a delivery order amount of $20,689,101 as part of a $363,844,808 firm-fixed-price contract for various 5.56mm and 7.62mm Small Caliber Ammunition Cartridges.” Work is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2006.
Awarded March 4, 2005: “a delivery order amount of $8,236,906 as part of a $372,586,618 firm-fixed-price contract for 5.56mm, 7.62mm, and .50 caliber ammunition cartridges.” Work is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2006.
You and I can buy 400 rounds of 7.62mm rifle ammunition for less than $40. Imagine, then, what federal purchasing power and hundreds of millions of dollars can buy!
Alliant Ammunition and Powder Co. is also making certain that, as the years go by, ammo-capacity won’t be lacking. In February 2005, Alliant was awarded “a delivery order amount of $19,400,000 as part of a $69,733,068 firm-fixed-price contract for Services to Modernize Equipment at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant” a government-owned facility operated by ATK. Alliant notes that this year it is churning out 1.2 billion rounds of small-caliber ammunition at its Lake City plant alone. But that, it seems, isn’t enough when future war planning is taken into account. As it happens, ATK and the Army are aiming to increase the plant’s “annual capacity to support the anticipated Department of Defense demand of between 1.5 billion and 1.8 billion rounds by 2006.” Think about it. In this year, alone, one single ATK plant will produce enough ammunition, at one bullet each, to execute every man, woman, and child in the world’s most populous nation and next year they’re upping the ante.
The Military-Corporate Complex’s Merchants of Death
Once upon a time, a company like ATK would have been classified as one of the world’s “Merchants of Death.” Then again, once upon a time we’re talking about the 1930s here the Senate was a place where America’s representatives were willing to launch probing inquiries into the ways in which arms manufacturers and their huge profits as well as their influences on international conflicts were linked to the dead of various lands. Back then, simple partisanship was set aside as the Senate’s Democratic majority appointed North Dakota’s Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye to head the “Senate Munitions Committee.”
While today’s fawning House members can barely get aging baseball heroes to talk to them, the 1930s inquiry hauled some of the most powerful men in the world like J.P. Morgan, Jr. and Pierre du Pont before the committee. Even back in the 1930s, however, the nascent military-industrial complex was just too powerful and so the Senate Munitions Committee was eventually thwarted in its investigations. As a result, the committee’s goal of nationalizing the American arms industry went down in flames.
Today, the very idea of such a committee even attempting such an investigation is simply beyond the pale. The planning for futuristic war of various horrific sorts, not to speak of the production and purchase of weapons and ammunition by the military-corporate complex, is now beyond reproach, accepted without question as necessary for national (now homeland) security a concept that long ago trumped the notion of national defense.
The Future Is Now
While the military-academic complex and DARPA scientists are hard at work creating the sort of killing machines that a generation back were the stuff of unbelievable sci-fi novels, old-fashioned firearms and even new energy weapons are being readied for use by the American imperial army tomorrow or just a few short years in the future. In February 2005, Day & Zimmerman Inc., a mega-company with its corporate fingers dipped in everything from nuclear security and munitions production to cryogenics and travel services, inked a deal to deliver 445,288 M67 fragmentation hand grenades (which produce casualties within an effective range of 15 meters) to the Army in 2006. In which country will a civilian will lose an eye, a leg, or a life as a result? Weapons made to kill are made to be used. This year ATK’s Lake City Army Ammunition Plant will produce 1.2 billion rounds of ammunition at the DoD’s behest and the company proudly proclaims, “Approximately 75% of the ammunition produced annually is consumed.”
With all those exotic pain rays, flechettes, super-efficient machine guns, and rounds and rounds of ammunition readied for action and they represent only a small part of the spectrum of weaponry and munitions being produced for war, American-style more people are sure to die, while others assumedly will experience “intense pain” from Peps weapons and the like. Back in October of last year, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, and al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, knocking on thousands of doors throughout Iraq, demonstrated that an estimated 100,000 civilians had already died violently as the direct or indirect consequence of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The main cause of these deaths: attacks by coalition (read as “U.S.”) forces. The future promises more of the same.
No one should be surprised by these figures though many were (and many also continue to deny the validity of these numbers). It’s obvious that, if you build them; they will kill. And you thought that we were supposed to “err on the side of life”?
Nick Turse is a doctoral candidate at the Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice and regularly for TomDispatch on the military-corporate complex and the homeland security state.