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space laser weapons illustration
Visions of space weapons, like this one from the 1980s, persist today even given the known technical and other challenges, thanks in part to the influence of science fiction. (credit: Defense Intelligence Agency)

Why we fall for the hype: contextualizing our thought on space warfare

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The history of the space age is littered with predictions about the development of space, and the military uses of space, that clearly overshot the mark. Of course, erroneous prediction is not the exception but the rule. Futurology is an intrinsically difficult activity, and the more complex the issue, the greater the uncertainty surrounding its most fundamental premises; the higher its stakes, the tougher the task becomes. All of this makes space warfare an area where specific guesses are especially likely to prove wrong—and, one might think, especially likely to be met with skepticism. Yet, radical but poorly grounded predictions about this subject—like warnings about imminent foreign conquest from above (see “Space war and Futurehype”, The Space Review, October 22, 2007), or visions of “astrocop” forces (see “Space war and Futurehype revisited”, The Space Review, November 14, 2011)—have enjoyed wide currency since Sputnik, at many points dominating debates about the issue. This pattern warrants some explanation, and “folk” perceptions of science and technology are a logical starting point for one.

Considering the Eureka paradigm

The popular view of technological research and development can be summed up in what I call “the Eureka paradigm” after the television show Eureka, which is set in a town populated almost wholly by scientific geniuses. In fairness the show does offers some concessions to the reality of Big Science as a complex, specialized, slow-moving, collaborative, organized, expensive, and highly politicized process full of flashes-in-the-pan and dead ends. For instance, the show depicts the scientists as employees of a major industrial company, “Global Dynamics,” whose research is subject to the decisions of administrators, which often reflect commercial needs or political imperatives. Many of those scientists are specialists engaged in long-term projects. However, these touches of realism tend to be background details. The actual episode plots tend to be written like updated “Edisonades” and reflect the problematic view of science as “nerd-magic” performed by

omnicompetent nerd-magicians pulling [instant] solutions out of thin air—so that if a problem does need solving all we have to do is get the nerds on it and, voila, it’s solved… And if the nerd-magicians don’t work quickly enough, we just have to hector them until they do, the way [the show’s main character] Sheriff Jack Carter, like many another rugged sci-fi hero, hectors the science types for a fix when there’s trouble.

It usually takes Carter only a little such hectoring because most of the time the tools for solving the episode’s problem are near to hand, which is an issue given how exotic those tools often are: functional androids, cryogenic life extension technology, and faster-than-light drives all depicted in this present day-set show. In this, Eureka reflects a second common, but problematic, idea: that every gadget science fiction writers have ever written about already exists out there, somewhere, if only in prototype form, if only in secret: a literal realization of William Gibson’s famous statement that “The future is already here, just not very evenly distributed.”

Eureka reflects a common, but problematic, idea: that every gadget science fiction writers have ever written about already exists out there, somewhere, if only in prototype form, if only in secret.

These two misconceptions—that science is “nerd-magic,” and that “the future is already here”—are not merely reflected in content like Eureka. As the general public’s primary source of information about science and technology, such TV shows and films do much to form its consciously- and unconsciously-held ideas about the technical state-of-the-art, about how that state-of-the-art evolves and the rate at which it changes, and, ultimately, what as-yet-undeveloped ideas would lead to workable new machines if given a little push. Indeed, Charles E. Gannon in Rumors of War and Infernal Machines characterizes what we see in “hard” science fiction like Eureka as nothing less than “rumors of the future.” By habituating us to the thought of technologies that do not exist, and which may not exist for a long time to come (if ever), such rumors have led to an exaggerated idea of the possible.

A century of space wars, in print and on the screen

This broad “culture” of thought about science—the assumption that technological R&D is quick and easy, and that everything that has ever been dreamed up is already at least half-invented—would seem more than sufficient to confuse matters, but it should be noted that space technology has been particularly subject to this kind of distorting presentation. Space vehicles and directed-energy weaponry have been among the most common images in science fiction during the past century, going back at least to Garrett P. Serviss’ Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1897) and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898). Indeed, stories of spaceflight have been science fiction’s most emblematic, as the longtime application of stickers with pictures of rocket ships to book spines to identify genre works demonstrates.

The technological advances we actually did make only reinforced such views. Space travel and lasers both became realities by the 1960s, and ever since that time our expectations of progress have far outstripped the reality—more in line with what we see in Hollywood blockbusters than in the nightly news. Those inflated expectations have been reinforced by the tendency to evoke science fiction in descriptions of real-world projects. The most famous example may be the evocation of Star Wars (1977) in discussion of the ’80s-era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was initially derogatory, but which has since come to be the popular label for the program, the negative connotation largely forgotten. Yet, more affecting than space operas far removed from our everyday world are those stories that have depicted these technologies as something just over the horizon, or workable even today—rumors not of the future, but of the present.

Years before the release of the original Star Wars, film audiences saw space-based laser weapons operating in the present day – in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971), which presented that laser as an effective tool for redressing the nuclear balance among the superpowers. The title of Clive Cussler’s Raise the Titanic! (book 1976, film 1980) evoked the name of history’s most romanticized ocean liner in its title, but the motive for the titular operation was the recovery of a mineral thought to have been aboard the sunken ship that is capable of powering an American missile defense system.

On Stargate, present-day American servicemen and women are depicted reverse-engineering alien technologies into weapons capable of thwarting invasions of Earth by interstellar fleets, next to which zapping a North Korean missile seems like child’s play.

Such images became only more commonplace after SDI moved to the center of debates over national security, particularly after the military techno-thriller genre exploded onto the scene in the 1980s. An update of the Victorian-era invasion story and Edisonade, with elements of the spy novel, Starship Troopers, and Rambo thrown in, it typically presented stories built around the latest weapons technologies in tales heavily marketed as realistic and accurate in their technical detail, and plausible in their depiction of international crisis scenarios. SDI-type initiatives, of course, were a popular subject, with the result that bestsellers like Craig Thomas’s Mitchell Gant novel Winter Hawk (1987), Dale Brown’s The Flight of the Old Dog (1987) and Silver Tower (1988), Tom Clancy’s The Cardinal of the Kremlin (the best-selling novel of 1988) and Payne Harrison’s Storming Intrepid (1989) all presented laser weapon systems sufficiently capable to provide strategic defense against large-scale nuclear attacks as being on the verge of deployment.

Depictions of such technologies have remained frequent in the years since. Hardcore military techno-thrillers have been less prominent on the bestseller lists since the end of the Cold War, but they have appeared nonetheless, some of them featuring space weapons concepts. In Larry Bond’s novel Cauldron (1993) the US used the proposed Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (G-PALS) system against a spy satellite controlled by an aggressive European alliance. More recently Dale Brown novels like Strike Force (2007), Shadow Command (2008) and Executive Intent (2010) had American space forces going up against assorted Russian, Chinese and Iranian villains. In the films Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998), the heroes were not up against human enemies, but threatening near Earth objects, and used radically advanced spaceships built in secrecy, constructed with technologies conveniently to hand when the crisis arrived, to meet the challenge. The Bond film Die Another Day (2002), essentially a post-9/11 remake of Diamonds Are Forever, brought back the older film’s space laser for an attack on American forces in South Korea.

Meanwhile, in the television spin-offs of the film Stargate, present-day American servicemen and women are depicted reverse-engineering alien technologies into weapons capable of thwarting invasions of Earth by interstellar fleets, next to which zapping a North Korean missile seems like child’s play. Those spin-offs came to three different series which ran for fourteen consecutive years (1997–2011) and 354 episodes, as well as two straight-to-video movies—an eternity by the measures of science fiction television, comparable only to the long presence of the venerable Star Trek franchise.

Pondering national defense

That popular culture is inundated by such imagery is, in itself, significant. However, it also seems that the ways in which we think about national defense make us more inclined to take such imagery seriously. In their book America Invulnerable: The Quest for Absolute Security From 1812 to Star Wars, Caleb Carr and James Chace made the case that Americans have been inclined to think of their security in terms that are unilateral and absolute. One result is that Americans may have a low threshold for threat perception, while also tending to push what they think of as their security boundary outward—all the way to outer space by the 1980s, as the subtitle of the book suggests.

Even those of us who “know better” about science and technology, who recognize the flaws in “the Eureka paradigm,” do not totally escape its influence.

If anything, the increased power of the United States, and its uniquely global role, strengthened the tendency, as increased power has a way of going along with a decreased tolerance of insecurity, a point Robert Kagan acknowledged in Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. By contrast, other states with more limited resources resign themselves to not pursuing certain ambitions, and to tolerating the existence of other, more powerful actors. (Even China is in this position, as demonstrated by the focus of its military modernization on the neutralization of the advantages of more advanced forces inside its region, rather than the foundations of a truly global military capability.)

All this means a tendency to react disproportionately to threats that may be improbable or implausible, including technological threats of unlikely kinds—perhaps especially these, as well as a readiness to try to seize on the opportunities that implausible weapons might afford the possessor. Jeremy Black, in his critique of military historiography, Rethinking Military History, argued that historians have overemphasized the role of technological change in capability. While this deficiency is universal, it appears to vary from one country to another, and it seems that this tendency has been more pronounced in the US than elsewhere (as reflected in, for instance, differences in reaction toward the “Revolution in Military Affairs” between the United States and its European partners, and the emphasis placed on high-tech military forces as an instrument of counterterrorism in the last decade). Indeed, in the book War Stars: Superweapons and the American Imagination, H. Bruce Franklin identified a tradition of American faith in the power of superior military technology to bring about a Wilsonian world peace going back at least to Robert Fulton—a tradition with which “astrocop” systems are a very convenient fit.

Even the more outré events of the Stargate television series may speak to popular thinking in ways underappreciated by experts, with its extraterrestrial aspect arguably a “rumor of the present” as well, given the UFO mythology presented by authors like Philip J. Corso in The Day After Roswell. Easy as this idea may seem to dismiss, it is worth remembering that a poll undertaken some years ago showed that 80 percent of the American public believed its government to be hiding the truth about extraterrestrials, one result of which was an online petition about the issue that led to an official response from the White House last year.

Those who know better

The biases described by writers like Chase, Carr, Kagan, Black, and Franklin are of particular interest because they are biases common among defense experts as well as casual observers. Just as is the case with those biases, even those of us who “know better” about science and technology, who recognize the flaws in “the Eureka paradigm,” do not totally escape its influence. As Gannon has noted, rumors of the future are often subject to a “trickle-up” effect, with writers’ fancies “ending up in the councils of official agenda-setters.” (To name one early example, H.G. Wells’ story “The Land Ironclads” was a direct influence on Winston Churchill’s encouragement of research into armored warfare.) Some of this may well be a matter of sophisticated observers drawing inspiration where they can get it. Yet, the realities of politics and business mean that not all the agenda-setters are sophisticated in such matters, and in any case, sophistication is an uncertain thing when one is making guesses about the future.

Additionally, where technological prediction is concerned, it is worth remembering that the specialization involved in cutting-edge research, development, and production means that even the technical experts do not have an equally deep understanding of every part of a complex project. Besides, the technical side of the issue is not everything. The well-known disconnects between the engineers who actually design the machines and administrators more concerned with the commercial and other imperatives those machines are intended to fulfill (analyzed in such works as Gideon Kunda’s Engineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-Tech Corporation) represents another significant gap in the thinking about these matters. It is certainly not unknown for experts to get carried away in their enthusiasm for an idea: engineers to get overly optimistic about what a particular technology can do, just as security experts are not unknown to succumb to jingoism or paranoia, or political ideologues to have inflated expectations of what their favored economic models can deliver (see “Market romanticism and the outlook for private space development”, The Space Review, September 2, 2008).

The well-known disconnects between the engineers who actually design the machines and administrators more concerned with the commercial and other imperatives those machines are intended to fulfill represents another significant gap in the thinking about these matters.

The folk biases easily creep into the gaps in our personal and collective knowledge. The susceptibility of experts to exaggerated science fiction-al notions of the possible may be especially noteworthy among experts who have one foot in science, engineering, and national security, and another in speculative fiction. That was the case with Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle, who were both staunch advocates of ambitious military space programs in missile defense and other areas. (Pournelle, notably, has been credited with originating the idea of weapons based on kinetic bombardment from orbit.) The authors of the ’80s-era techno-thrillers, likewise, were often highly regarded commentators on military affairs. Ralph Peters, who outlined the most aggressive schemes for American space dominance of which I am aware, was a prominent techno-thriller writer himself, one who depicted electromagnetic guns, laser cannons, and space-based defenses in one of his novels, the bestseller The War in 2020 (1991). President Ronald Reagan was not a writer of science fiction, but during his time in Hollywood he did star in Murder in the Air (1940), a spy movie in which the MacGuffin was a directed-energy weapon, and it has become commonplace to suggest that his experience in the film was an inspiration for SDI. Similarly, one might wonder if the openness to such ideas as science fiction on the part of those mentioned here did not leave them a bit too open to those same ideas—too uncritical of them—when seriously considering policy questions.

Given all this—flawed folk ideas about technological development, misleading depictions of space warfare in fiction and film, questionable assumptions about the interaction of technology and national security, and even the limits of expert knowledge—what would be astonishing is if the debate had not reached something like its troubling present state. That said, there is no quick fix for the weaknesses of this important dialogue, or the deeply ingrained biases that exacerbate them, but it may be that a greater awareness of those weaknesses will help to ameliorate its worst tendencies.