Democrats & Liberals Archives

Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Strategic Defense Initiative has been science fiction from the start, and for the time being looks to remain that way. At first it was X-Ray lasers, ignited by nuclear bombs. They’ve actually been used… In a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called Footfall. Should technologically advanced elephant-like aliens ever invade, we’ll know exactly what to do.

Then they switched genres to fantasy. Here, the magic forces of the Reagan and Bush administrations manage to bankrupt the Russians simply by overspending on defense. The magic part of it is the Russians never increased spending on their end. It reminds me of the Aztecs sacrificing human beings to ensure that the sun came up again the next day. Makes as much sense, too.

Of course, the Republicans can't coast on that forever. Which is why we've switched back to science fiction again. This time though, the lines are blurrier. We're dealing with predictions that may be a few years, not decades down the line. But in the end they are telling us we should fund efforts to put their masterpiece in the air, so it can protect us. Problem is, even if what we got over our heads wins the Hugos and the Nebulas, it's not going to be able to protect us.

It's what they call hard science fiction, really- it's in the realm of possibility, but it's not yet a reality. Instead of the highly hairy, and impossible to test X-Ray lasers, or any such particle physics claptrap, it's a kinetic impact device.

Translation: The missiles had better hope they've got their collision insurance paid up. Idea being, you hit the missile in ballistic phase, when it's coasting out of the lower atmosphere, and just making like a rock catapulted over a castle wall. We come in with our impactor, we send them at them and Wam the brute force of a craft hitting the warhead at thousands of miles an hour leaves a nice souvenir the enemy can fit in a shoe box. At least, that's the idea.

That creates several problems. The targetting mechanism must be able to tell the warhead apart from everything else. It has to be able to aim for where this object will be with extraordinary precision, as it travels thousands of miles an hour towards the target. If it doesn't do this, a whole city is leveled, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions die.

That's what they're saying. But what they're doing is trying to sell the taxpayers a system to prevent this, that currently has no hope of succeeding at this.

Oh, they can hit targets. Prearranged, non-random, sometimes even programmed targets. They can even do this while being remote controlled.

What about random targets, though? If Bush doesn't think rogue states will be nice enough to gives us notice on when they plan to use their weapon, how do we expect this weapon to work? The whole point of a missile shield is to deal with a surprise attack, and this won't do it.

We want these systems autonomous. But right now, the technology isn't up to it. It's blind and stupid, yet another example of the irony of the term Artificial Intelligence in this day and age. If these things can't hit the target, they're just expensive defense department paperweights.

Some will insist that we give it its chance, but this isn't the movies, this isn't some script or book somebody wants to get published, this is a device meant to actually protect us from ICBMs and their warheads. If they can't actually do that job, it's negligent to put them up there. Perfect the technology first, because doing it any faster is not doing it at all.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at March 18, 2004 12:47 AM