www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to issue 19 | PDF Version of this article

International Socialist Review Issue 19, July-August 2001

Militarizing Space "to protect U.S. interests and investment"

By Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of numerous books on U.S. foreign policy and human rights, including Fateful Triangle, Rogue States, and The New Military Humanism.

ABOUT 20 years ago, Michael Albert at Z magazine asked me to write a book with the title Turning the Tide.1 It was about how the tide was flowing the wrong way, and at the end, to make Michael feel happy, there are a couple of upbeat paragraphs.

Actually, I didn’t know at the time that there were quite a lot of very substantial popular movements developing in the South, the so-called Third World–Brazil, India, and other places–which I did learn a little about later on, sometimes with personal experience, including things like popular media and self-governing villages. But they are very substantial, very encouraging. The last couple of years there have been important linkages between movements in the South and grassroots movements up here. That’s a very encouraging development. Occasionally it breaks through to such visibility that even the mainstream has to pay attention.

But you can be pretty confident that the power centers are paying very close attention. They’re concerned. They’re worried that there are lots and lots of people swimming against the tide, very vigorously, and it’s in danger of turning. I think now it would be possible to write a much more optimistic book with that title, even including content that would fit the title.

A symbolic example, which you all know about, is the decision of the World Trade Organization to put their next meeting in so remote a location that they hope nobody will get there–namely, in Qatar. If you take a look at the serious business press, there is deep concern about popular movements. About ten years ago it began to affect at least the rhetoric, and to a certain extent even the planning, at the international financial institutions like the World Bank and lately the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and other policymaking organizations, which realize they’ve got to respond somehow to the growing, massive opposition.

One of the most interesting kinds of reaction is silence. Major issues, the really important issues, are simply suppressed. Because they know that if they come out in public, there’s going to be tremendous opposition. The so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas is a striking example right now. So there’s plenty to be encouraged about, I think.

What I want to talk about are things that if you looked at them alone would be very discouraging. But against the background of the reactions that have been growing and developing, it suggests things that can be done. I want to talk about things that range from really ominous to threatening–by that I mean potentially threatening even to the survival of the species. This is not an exaggeration. But I hope you’ll keep in the back of your minds the fact that there are very encouraging developments in opposition to this, and they provide a basis for extending a groundswell which is very substantial.

Let’s start with some of the most ominous. Let’s start, for example, with the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission report on the ballistic missile threat to the United States, which is being presented mainly as being about national missile defense programs.

It’s arousing enormous opposition around the world, and properly. But we have to be clear about what it is. Missile defenses are a small piece of it. The real issue is the militarization of space.

This is not a Bush program. It’s a bipartisan program. Some of the major and most interesting planning documents related to these issues are from the Clinton period. The United States Space Command recently put out a glossy booklet. It’s worth looking at. It’s called Vision for 2020.2 It’s a vision of the space command, of where they’re going. Missile defense fits in as a small footnote.

It starts on the front page with the wording, with nice graphics, that the vision is militarization of space in order "to protect U.S. interests and investment." That requires several things. For one thing, it requires the militarization of space. It requires anti-satellite weapons to be able to destroy any communication or surveillance of any potential adversary. It requires means to protect U.S. satellites, because missile defense doesn’t work unless these satellites are operative. And remember, the technical problem of shooting down a satellite is a lot simpler than shooting down a missile. A satellite is fixed, either stable or in a fixed orbit. You can predict where it’s going to be. An anti-satellite weapon is kind of like a poor country’s option. Attacking missiles is much harder. So it requires anti-satellite weapons, protection against anti-satellite weapons of some adversary. It requires what’s called "full-spectrum dominance," where you’ve got to control everything because it’s too dangerous. First-strike weapons from space are required. When the American EP-3 spy plane was over China in April, it was clearly trying to obtain information that would be useful for a potential first nuclear strike. And the Chinese knew that, certainly. First strike is U.S. policy, even against non-nuclear states.

It’s been pointed out by critics in the mainstream, in Foreign Affairs, for example, that there’s an inherent contradiction in the current plans that the strategic analysts are worried about, namely that you can’t both have missile defense and anti-satellite weapons, because a missile defense system requires satellites to coordinate and control it. So if there are going to be anti-satellite weapons, they’re going to destroy a missile defense system. Vision for 2020 and the Rumsfeld Commission report have an answer for that.

The answer is, as I said, full-spectrum dominance, such total dominance of space that no adversary will even come close. Nobody really seriously thinks they can achieve that. But it doesn’t matter. It sets in motion a new age of warfare in which the U.S. happens to be technologically so far in the lead that no potential adversary is going to say, Fine, have a nuclear first strike if you like. They’re going to proceed, and they will proceed in predictable ways, namely by developing anti-satellite weapons, to which the U.S. will have to respond with even more massive militarization.

Furthermore, it is pretty well understood that it’s going to lead to proliferation. China is going to respond. Russia is going to respond. If China develops its at the moment very minimal deterrent into one that’s capable of responding to this extended system, India is going to respond out of concern over China. Pakistan will react to India developments.

Israel will react to Pakistan developments. Other countries will get into the game. It will pretty clearly have the effect of proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Nobody seriously believes that any potential adversary of the U.S. is going to be nutty enough to try to send a missile. So the missile defense system isn’t intended to do anything defensive.

What it’s intended to be is a protection for U.S. forces on the ground or in the air. It’s supposed to give room for a first strike with relative confidence that there can’t be a reaction.

This is known. The Canadian military advised the government of Canada in papers that were leaked that the purpose of the missile defense is not any kind of defense. It’s to create a cover for offensive military actions, including possibly a first strike. The Star Wars program, SDI, was understood in the same way. So it’s basically an offensive weapon.

A lot of debate now is whether national missile defense is technically possible. Is it going to work? That’s kind of missing the point. If it looks like it’s not going to work, then it’s not a big problem. If there’s any hint that it might work, potential adversaries have to take that seriously. When you’re talking about weapons of total destruction–the likelihood and confidence of total destruction–minimal probability has to be assumed to be reality. You can’t take chances.

The Space Command isn’t really concerned about the danger that we might blow up the world. That’s a small problem. What they’re interested in is something different. They’re interested in providing a basis for U.S. military action, including first strike if needed. But more important, they’re protecting U.S.-based investments and commercial interests. And they give an analogy. They say that the militarization of space is very much like the development of navies. The British navy ruled the seas in order to protect British investments and commercial interests. And then, of course, other navies responded, like the German navy. You go on and get into the First World War.

They also compare the militarization of space to the U.S. army in the nineteenth century. As they put it, the U.S. army in the nineteenth century had the responsibility for protecting the U.S. wagon trains and settlements. That’s a way of looking at it. To translate that into reality, they had the responsibility for massive ethnic cleansing and conquering half of Mexico and going on to the Caribbean and the Philippines, and then defending what was there, "defending" what they had established.

Once you carry out the ethnic cleansing and wipe out the population, you still need to protect it from others who might still resist. So you needed the army. And it was indeed in that sense that they were protecting investments and commercial interests. They point out that space is just the next frontier.

There are other things they could have pointed out but didn’t, but they’re worth thinking about. Armies and navies had other functions. For example, they provided the basis for the developing industrial economy. The U.S. army, for example, in the nineteenth century developed the basis for what became the mass production system. That was much too expensive and complicated for individual entrepreneurs to put money into, so what became the American system of mass production, which amazed the world when it finally started to be used commercially, was preceded by about 40 years of work in army ordnance. That meant creating the technique of using interchangeable parts, mass production, and so on. It was developed in the Springfield armory and places like that for weapons production.

It’s been pointed out that the technical problems of militarizing space, which are the cutting edge of technology and industrial development today, are in a way rather similar to naval armament about a century ago. That was the basis for development of what became the automobile industry and others. That’s where the experience and the technology were developed.

The first billion-dollar corporation in the U.S. was Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel Corporation. Carnegie was a well-known pacifist, but he made his money, a lot of it, by producing steel for battleships. It was very profitable, and it laid the basis for the steel industry and later other industries, including the automotive industry, which totally changed U.S. industrial development and, in fact, social and economic life.

To innovate and carry out development in the military system is essentially cost-free. They don’t have to worry about profits because the public’s paying for it. And there’s the cover story: defense.

After the Second World War, investment exploded. What’s called the modern new economy is based very heavily on that. Computers, electronics generally, automation, containerization, aircraft, the Internet, and telecommunications all grow out of extensive public spending under the cover of military industry, which then gets handed over to private pockets.

That’s a long pattern. So, it’s quite correct to think of militarization of space as serving the kinds of functions that navies, and to some extent armies, served a century ago: for protecting commercial interests and investment, for serving as a cover for socialization of the next phase of technological development, and for providing the means for a first strike if necessary or the use of force without concern for deterrence.

Europe has been critical of the national missile defense, which everybody understands to be just a piece of the militarization of space. On the other hand, it’s beginning to shift. Chancellor Schröder of Germany recently pointed out that the European Union had better get involved in these programs. If not, they’ll be left behind in technological development for the next phase of economic progress. They want to make sure they won’t be left out of this aspect of it. They’re concerned about the dangers, which are quite real. Militarization of space could lead to blowing up the world. But it’s not all that important. Other things are far more significant to them.

The danger of real total destruction has been around since the weapons of mass destruction took off in the Second World War. But it’s interesting to see the reaction to it. The U.S. has a position of security that’s beyond any historical parallel. It controls the whole hemisphere, both oceans, the opposite sides of both oceans. Nobody’s ever done that. The U.S. hasn’t even been under a threat since the War of 1812. Its position of power is enormous, and after the Second World War was phenomenal. However, there was one potential threat, namely intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. That could have posed a threat to U.S. security.

By now there are pretty good histories of the whole arms race since the Second World War. A number of major commentators, like McGeorge Bundy, who did a major history of this, have pointed out that they cannot find any evidence that anybody ever cared, that is, there was no effort around the early 1950s to try to prevent ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] development by some treaty arrangement or other negotiations, which probably could have been done. The U.S. was very far ahead. The Russians were very far behind. And they were, in fact, trying to press for some kind of disarmament, not because they’re nice guys, but because they knew how far behind they were and how dangerous it was. So it’s quite possible that ICBM development could have been prevented by treaty. There was never any move to try to do so. It just wasn’t of any concern.

After Stalin’s death, when Khrushchev took over after a little space in the mid-1950s, he began to make significant efforts toward reducing the level of military confrontation. There were reports about this at the time. We know now that it was actually happening and that the U.S. knew about it and was rejecting it. The Eisenhower administration refused to respond to Khrushchev’s offers of reduction of offensive military forces, including jet planes, troops, and so on. The Kennedy administration just killed it.

By that time, the Russians had in fact significantly disarmed. Khrushchev had reduced offensive air forces by around 30 percent. They had almost no missiles. They were very far from developing them. We have enough internal documentation to know that the Eisenhower administration and later the Kennedy administration were perfectly aware of this but chose instead to escalate the arms race, posing a very significant threat to the U.S. and in fact to the world. The reason is, there were just more important considerations, like ensuring domination of much of the world, protecting U.S. investments and commercial interests, and providing an enormous shot in the arm to the economy under the cover of military production. When MIRVs [multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles] came along about a decade later, the story was the same.

Could it be stopped now? Could we stop the militarization of space? It certainly looks like we could. The reason is that the U.S. is alone, literally alone, in pressing for it. The entire world is opposed, because they’re scared, mainly. The U.S. is way ahead. If other countries are not willing to even dream of full-spectrum dominance and world control, they’re way too far behind; they will react, undoubtedly. But they’d like to cut it off. And there are several treaties, which are in fact already in place, that are supported literally by the entire world and that the U.S. is trying to overturn. One is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which bans placing weapons in outer space. Everyone signed it, including the United States. Nobody has tried to put weapons in outer space. It has been observed and would be easily detected if anyone broke it.

In 1999, the treaty came up at the UN General Assembly, and the vote was around 163 to 0 with 2 abstentions, the U.S. and Israel, which votes automatically with the U.S. In 2000, last November, it came up again, and the vote was around 160 to 0 with 3 abstentions. For some reason, Micronesia voted with the U.S.

Since January, there have been ongoing meetings of the UN disarmament commissions trying to press for reaffirmation of the principle of no militarization of space, and the U.S. is blocking it, alone. Not because other countries are nice guys. It’s just that’s the way the balance of power is. They know better than to try to get into this game.

This treaty is rarely mentioned, for some reason. The other one which is mentioned is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which the Bush administration is committed to dismantling. Remember that that treaty bars anti-satellite weapons, a crucial part of it. It bars any interference with satellites. That’s something they want to get rid of, because they want to be able to destroy satellites, communication, and surveillance by anybody else. The rest of the world is supporting the ABM Treaty, hoping to prevent the development of anti-satellite weapons.

So there are already at least two major treaties to which there is almost, at least on paper, total adherence and which have been observed for a long time that the U.S. is attempting to dismantle. This is proceeding full speed ahead, and it’s bipartisan. The Bush administration is expanding Clinton’s programs, but not fundamentally changing them.

In addition to this, it’s well recognized, and again, you can read this all over the mainstream, that probably the major threat to anybody’s security right now is the collapsing Soviet economy. Since the West took over the Soviet Union, ten years ago, the Russian economy has totally collapsed. It’s a huge demographic catastrophe. Millions of people have died. There’s enormous poverty. The place is falling apart. But the Soviet Union is not a typical Third World country. It happens to have had a very advanced military system. It’s supposed to have about 40,000 nuclear weapons. Its command and control systems are deteriorating, as is everything else in the country. Furthermore, there are a lot of highly trained nuclear scientists who have nothing to do except drive taxicabs. There’s a very high likelihood that these weapons will get out somewhere else or that they’ll just go off. The control systems are not functioning.

The Clinton administration actually urged the Russians to shift to a launch-on-warning strategy, meaning an automated system of shooting off nuclear weapons without nuclear intervention. That’s what the U.S. has. The reason was to try to convince the Russians to accept the U.S. missile defense militarization of space programs. The idea was, Look, if they shift to launch-on-warning, they’ll feel safer. So they won’t worry so much about our militarization of space.

This is total madness from the point of view of survival. To try to get a country to try to shift to automated launching of missiles when you know its command and control systems are deteriorating is asking for an accidental nuclear war. Some accident will take place, the systems will malfunction, and there’ll be no human intervention, and the missiles will go off. Then of course it’s finished, because the U.S. will respond.

A bipartisan congressional panel recently recommended that the U.S. spend billions of dollars to try to assist the Russians in dismantling their nuclear weapons system and also to provide opportunities for nuclear scientists in Russia to move to some less destructive field. The Clinton administration did have a small $800 million program to try to do that. The Bush administration has cut it back. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is extremely dangerous. But it just doesn’t matter. The question of whether you’ll survive in another 10 or 20 years just doesn’t arise, as it hasn’t in the past.

There’s one other part of the Vision for 2020 that is worth paying attention to. In looking to the future, they say they expect what’s called globalization to continue. This, they say, will lead to a sharper divide between the haves and the have-nots, and therefore it will lead to potential efforts to harm U.S. interests. In other words, we have to control the have-nots who want to do something about the fact that they’re have-nots. That’s not their own conception. That’s standard. The U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA and the National Intelligence Council, just put out a study of projections for the next 15 years, to the year 2015, called Global Trends 2015, with the collaboration of academic specialists and people from the business community.3 They gave various possible scenarios. They say the most optimistic scenario is that globalization will proceed on course, but its evolution will be rocky, leading to "chronic financial volatility and a widening economic divide."

That’s the most optimistic scenario.

Increased financial volatility means slower growth. In fact, the so-called globalization period, the last 20 or 25 years, has seen a pretty notable deterioration in virtually all standard measures: rate of growth, rate of productivity growth, rate of capital investment, and so on. They’ve all declined. That’s true in the U.S. and in other countries. But they’re predicting more of it, so the most optimistic scenario is still slower growth because of financial volatility and greater inequality, what the Space Command calls a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

It shows you what the conception of globalization is: Officials expect globalization to expand and inequality to increase. That means globalization in the technical sense, integration of markets, will decline. Globalization in the preferred sense–meaning investor rights, basically–will increase. That’s in fact what’s been happening. Inequality has been growing very rapidly, while economic growth has also slowed during the so-called globalization period, the last 20 years or so.

If that takes place, the Space Command’s projection is plausible. There will be more threats to U.S. interests in other countries, the have-nots. The intelligence community projection for the Western Hemisphere is that the oil producers ought to do pretty well–Venezuela, Brazil, and Mexico–but that the rest of the hemisphere is going to be in bad trouble, and the Andean region may be a total disaster, which means more and more threats to U.S. interests, meaning threats to U.S. investments and commercial interests in countries that are collapsing. So you need more militarization. In fact, the number of U.S. forces in Latin America has increased substantially.

These are the most optimistic projections. They make some sense. You can understand them. It gives you a picture of what’s planned for the world.

There’s nothing irreversible about this. There is strong opposition around the world. But it’s going to take a fair amount of popular mobilization in the U.S. to reverse these directions.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered at the Z Media Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in June 2001.

1 Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (Boston: South End Press, 1985).

2 Vision for 2020 is available online at

3 Global Trends 2015 is available online at

Back to top