Andrew Lichterman

(based on a talk given at a protest outside Vandenberg Air Force Base, June 5, 2010).

We are now several years in to a deep global economic and political crisis that shows no sign of abating. Those in command of the world’s political systems seem capable of doing little beyond protecting the immediate interests of privileged elements in their societies. At the same time, the familiar forms of oppositional activity seem spent, unable to pose a coherent and convincing alternative to the current order of things. Movements for peace and for a society that is more fair economically and sustainable ecologically can be found everywhere, but often are fragmented by specialization or particularized grievances and mired in habitual forms of thought and action. It is essential that all of us in these movements try to develop a broader understanding of this time and its challenges, starting from our particular work and location in the world and sketching the connections, however tentatively, to the larger whole. This will be one such sketch, with its starting point in disarmament work in the heartland of the U.S. aerospace-military-industrial complex in California.

Disarmament “progress” in the United States: rhetoric vs. reality

Last month in New York, the states that are parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty met to review the status of the treaty and the performance of its parties, a review that occurs every five years. After opening the conference with general endorsements of the concept of nuclear disarmament, the United States (together with other nuclear weapons states) spent the remainder of the month doing its best to weaken or eliminate language in drafts of the Review Conference final document that would impose any substantive disarmament obligations on the nuclear weapons states, such as time limits or definite commitments to negotiate a convention for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile in Washington D.C., the Obama administration proposals for increases in nuclear weapons spending were moving through Congress, the only significant opposition coming from those who claim that the budget increases are too small.We now have a flurry of elite rhetorical enthusiasm for disarmament, and much celebration of a U.S.-Russia treaty that will have little effect on the thousands of nuclear weapons they currently deploy, and even those requirements aren’t mandatory until 2017. But a few hundred nuclear weapons can destroy any country on earth, and a thousand are more could have effects that destroy much of the world’s civilization, killing a significant portion of its inhabitants.

And in this year’s budget request, the Obama administration, if anything, seems determined to outflank its Congressional critics from the right, proposing a 10% increase in nuclear warhead research and production funding and further increases for future years. And that’s just the Department of Energy budget. The Defense Department budget also has sizable increases for nuclear weapons and delivery systems. In evaluating the level of commitment to disarmament of this administration, it might be wise to remember the observation repeated by several economists of the last century, that “the budget is the skeleton of the state stripped of all misleading ideologies.”

In early June I spoke at a protest at the gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base, a vast installation sprawling for miles along the southern California coast. Unlike the rest of the U.S. economy, Vandenberg is thriving, playing key roles in both the present and the future of this country’s war cycle, fighting endless wars in the present while striving endlessly for dominance in all imaginable wars to come. Vandenberg represents a kind of microcosm both of the gigantic U.S. military machine and of the upper echelons of U.S. society, tending ever more towards a perpetual exercise in maintaining power over others through violence while hiding behind layers of gates, guards, and guns.

The United States is continuing a broad effort aimed at developing new generations of strategic weapons and refining the techniques for using them, spending far more on high-tech weapons than any other country. This effort today includes upgrading existing intercontinental ballistic missiles and planning for work on next generation long-range missiles. For decades, Vandenberg Air Force Base has tested new generations of long range missiles, and continues to flight test those now operational.

Vandenberg is both a test range and one of the first two deployment sites for mid-course ballistic missile defense interceptors. And just a few weeks ago, the Air Force launched a Hypersonic Technology Vehicle from Vandenberg aimed at a target area at Kwajelein Atoll in the Pacific. That test was part of a program to develop a new generation of maneuverable gliding delivery vehicles that will be able to hit targets anywhere on earth within an hour or two. If deployed, these systems are intended to carry highly accurate non-nuclear payloads, permitting destruction by missile at global ranges with non-nuclear weapons for the first time. And one of the sites being considered for deployment is Vandenberg Air Force Base, supposedly to avoid confusion with the launch of nuclear-armed missiles from their bases in the Midwest.

Vandenberg is where the present and future of U.S. war making comes together. Many of the military satellites used for surveillance, to target weapons and to provide communications for current U.S. wars are launched here. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg does day to day planning of missions for the positioning and use of military satellites in those ongoing wars. (more…)