Recently on this site I wrote about Space Force, the U.S.’s new military branch signed into existence by Donald Trump last December. The article pointed out that the shift from the Air Force run Space Command to an independent Space Force would weaponize space in ways that dramatically increase the likelihood of a nuclear holocaust.
A few days ago we were treated to one more taste of what happens when a trivial, utterly self-serving individual is placed in a position of immense power. At the May 15th ceremony that unveiled the Space Force flag, the president stated, “We’ve worked very hard on this and it’s so important from a defensive standpoint, from an offensive standpoint, from every standpoint there is.”
After defensive and offensive, the president obviously ran out of standpoints. “Special teams standpoint” would have made more sense than “every standpoint there is”. The statement is unprofessional, sloppy, and meaningless. It is tweet language, not language one would expect when presenting a new branch of the armed services. But the term “offensive” is downright dumb.
When Ronald Reagan kick-started the Star Wars missile defense initiative, the Soviet Union assumed the U.S. sought to establish a first-strike, offensive nuclear advantage. This was not hysterical thinking. During the Cuban missile crisis of October of 1962, President Kennedy and his brother Robert had to restrain the Pentagon from ordering a first strike against the Soviets. Star Wars, if it hadn’t been a failure and financial boondoggle, could have neutralized a Soviet counter-strike in the event of a surprise American attack. Soviet paranoia (if such it was), should be understandable to Americans. From 1945-1991 our national culture was gripped by Cold War paranoia that undermined our democracy and led us into such disasters as the Vietnam War and runaway defense spending. Since 9/11, it’s gotten worse. Super-power politics is bathed in paranoia.
Therefore, Trump’s “offensive standpoint” in effect announced to the world that our publicly stated rationale for Space Force is a load of bull. Its purpose is not simply to protect our own satellites. We’ve been militarizing space for decades. But now, the Commander in Chief has publicly said that Space Force will also have offensive capabilities.
One might say that the arms race is always about achieving offensive advantage along with a strong defense against invasion or missile attacks. In fact, the best deterrent very often comes from having that offensive edge. But in the nuclear age, there has been a tacit agreement that a nation does not openly pursue weapons that give it overwhelming offensive power over its rivals. That is what arms treaties are about. The reason is twofold: the unimaginable destructive power of the weapons that render terms like “winner” and “loser” meaningless, and the speed of delivery, which reduces the time needed to verify and respond to a suspected or surprise attack.
Thus when a head of state publicly rejoices over an anticipated overwhelming offensive advantage, it sends military intelligence agencies around the world into a tizzy. Even when announced with all the panache of an offhand, airhead tweet by a president with a shaky perception of reality to begin with, the threat has to be taken seriously. Imagine if Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping said at a military ceremony the equivalent of “Now we’re ready to rumble.” Look at the flurry of denunciation and hand-wringing in the U.S. media and Congress whenever Kim Jong Il of North Korea blurts out some new nonsense about his nation’s grandiose nuclear designs.
Say what? “Super-duper missile”? Can you imagine the chiefs of staff standing in front of their microphones and announcing that the United States will unveil a “super-duper missile”? But Mr. Trump must be kept informed by generals and his national security advisor and aides, right? He must have been briefed on the super-duper missile.
Well, maybe. You see, he “heard the other night” something about it being 17 times faster… Where exactly did he hear it? At a cocktail party? Was he wandering the halls of the Pentagon and catch some junior officers talking excitedly about a super-duper missile that’s like, so fast, like 17 times faster than, like, they have…”? Or maybe they were just talking about a new add-on to the latest video game.
And who is “they”? Those other top guns, China and Russia, sure, but the arms race affects many other countries as well. Right now, officials all through the nations of “they” are probably driving their subordinates crazy, demanding the latest updates on where their super-duper missiles are at. “How close are we to achieving super-duper-dom? Ten times faster than what they have now! That’s not good enough! We need 18 times faster! When will their super-duper be ready? What kind of fuel…guidance systems…launch capacities…bases…manufacturing sites and processes…?” So much to explore!
We’re not the only fools on the planet. It’s a global disease. But we’re the behemoth in the room and when our president speaks like some loose-lipped drunken military attaché in a Moscow bar about the most sensitive international issue on the planet—the nuclear arms race—it puts everyone on edge. It accelerates the race for newer and better weapons. Missiles that make a quantum leap in velocity place greater defensive reliance on nuclear devices with hair-trigger response systems that reduce call-back time to seconds, at best. One small glitch for an algorithm, one giant glitch for humankind.
So it’s not just Trump’s schoolboy language that offends. It is his complete blundering ignorance of the most basic guidelines of public discourse and diplomacy. It is reckless. It is the behavior of a birthday boy who’s just been told his new toy can blow up the whole block. His language reveals he knows nothing about the actual military plans for Space Force and that he has no idea about Space Force’s planned weapons development.
We can only hope “they” dismiss Trump’s verbal tweeting as nonsense. But the odds are our commander-in-chief has just given a case of the jitters to the entire defensive—and offensive—apparatus of the nuclear world. It is not going to cause a war or push us to the brink. But it does point to the mixed intentions at the heart of Space Force and shines a light on the black hole where a commander-in-chief should be. And the toys we’re playing with are much, much more dangerous than fire.