Obama’s Change comes not from Policy, but from Economic Collapse

By Loring Wirbel

Citizens for Peace in Space, Colorado Springs

April 17, 2009

Canadian activist Naomi Klein told The Progressive magazine in its February 2009 issue that she is tired of the progressive activists with “selective amnesia.”
[i] They cannot remember anything bad that happened before the Bush administration, and do not recognize bad policy coming from the White House after Bush left.  Naomi Klein was talking about the financial problems Bill Clinton started with the Glass-Steagall banking act.

But activists working for peace in space know what she is talking about.  The Space Command’s Vision for 2020 document was written during the Clinton years, not the Bush years.  And many aggressive military space policies are continuing unchanged in the Obama era.

In March 2009, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the White House has only done a moderate job of changing executive-branch abuses from the Bush administration, and of implementing the changes suggested in ACLU’s 100-Day “Actions for Restoring America” document.  [ii]While Obama rapidly called for the closure of Guantanamo, his administration did not change its state secrets position in the case of Binyam Mohamed, not did it change the Bush position on lawsuits involving the National Security Agency and warrantless surveillance.

There are two positive signs in future directions for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency:  The Pentagon is considering a budget cut of approximately $2 billion, or 20 percent, in the agency’s $10 billion budget.[iii]  The new director of MDA, Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, has indicated that no weapons will be fielded without testing, as was common in the Bush administration.  Even Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is warning that any missile-defense beyond short-range Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), is probably obsolete and may be canceled.[iv]  President Obama has made an informal offer to Russia to postpone or cancel the planned missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, if Russia will help dissuade Iran from proceeding with nuclear weapons development.

However, there is no real discussion within the Pentagon for taking existing missile-defense weapons in California and Alaska off alert.  There is no intention of cutting back on Asia deployments of Aegis cruisers for sea-based missile defense. Obama seems to be as willing as George Bush to respond decisively to further North Korea tests of the Taepodong-2 missile system.  It is instructive to look at a proposal in The New York Times March 12, by MIT Professor Theodore Postol, suggesting that European ground-based missile defense be abandoned, in favor of a boost-phase kinetic missile defense that would be carried on UAVs, which would fly over “nations of concern” such as Iran and North Korea.  It seems likely that President Obama would promote such a concept as “responsible” missile defense.[v]

In existing theaters of war, the Obama administration supports intelligence and force-deployment methods begun under Bush.  CIA Director Leon Panetta said he thinks the armed flights of UAVs over Pakistan and Afghanistan have been successful.  Intelligence flights of unarmed UAVs throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will likely be increased.  [vi]  Intelligence-sharing with Israel, which was expanded by Bush prior to the December invasion of Gaza, is unlikely to be limited by Obama unless the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, significantly expands Israeli control in the occupied territories.

Does this lead us to the conclusion favored by Ralph Nader, that there is no difference between Democrat and Republican policies?  Not exactly.  Former Vice President Dick Cheney sought a vast expansion of executive power that was unlike any seen in a century.  Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denounced the notion of ‘soft power,’ and criticized ‘Old Europe’ because the mainstream EU nations would not support preventive first-strike war.  Clearly, the Obama administration recognizes that the U.S. is an empire in decline, and that it can only assert authority so long as it recognizes the role of other nations that hold the keys to economic hegemony.

But all leaders in the U.S. Democratic Party recognize that imperialism and exceptionalism are bipartisan activities, and they are philosophies that remain quite popular with U.S. citizens.  The invasion of Iraq only became unpopular when its goals bogged down in 2004.  U.S citizens do not relish the thought of seeing their superpower status decline, and are willing to listen to any leader who tells them they can still be Number 1.  The biggest danger is when leaders attempt to use populism to rally U.S. citizens against an adversary.  Obama has avoided using such populist rhetoric.  If the conservative commentators who now rule the Republican Party find a populist crusade to rally citizens against a new “enemy,” we can expect such crusades to become popular, particularly as citizens’ fears escalate in times of economic uncertainty.

Is there a bright spot?  The brightest spot may be that same economic uncertainty.   Continuing the infrastructure of the Bush administration, in terms of future space weapons or current space platforms used in first-strike warfare, simply cannot be afforded.  The apparent need to go through a second round of cutting the budget in June-July 2009 will confront the Defense Department and intelligence establishment with uncomfortable choices.

For example, the current plans call for the Missile Defense Agency to see up to $2 billion of its $10 billion annual budget cut.  The number of cuts could grow by the summer.  This may mean that space-based successors to the NFIRE weapons test platform are canceled or postponed.  It is unlikely that the airborne laser for midcourse missile defense will move beyond simple tests.

It is important to mention that some programs of missile defense have been handed over to active military wings.  The ground-based missiles in California and Alaska now are under the control of Air Force Space Command and Strategic Command.  The Theater Missile Defense weapons on Aegis cruisers are under Navy control with Air Force input.  However, the operational budgets of the military commands are also likely to face significant cuts, with all available funds going to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In space-based intelligence, the budgets of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and National Security Agency (NSA) now are estimated at $15 billion for each agency, with the total U.S. intelligence budget estimated at $66.5 billion.  This is a 30 percent increase from the last published figures of the Director of National Intelligence, and is simply unsustainable in a budget crisis.  More space intelligence will have to be outsourced to private platforms, and more advanced satellites like the Transformational Satellite System will have to be delayed.

What does this mean for deployed forces on the ground?  Targeting of gravity bombs and missiles using Global Positioning System satellites is not likely to be affected, because a full constellation of GPS satellites is already in orbit.  As a result, the advantages in GPS-powered bombs like the Joint Direct Assault Munition will still be realized, in areas as diverse as Gaza (where Israel has access to U.S. space technology), and the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region.

Those networked battlefields that depend on space-based communications and intelligence, however, will experience significant reductions in capability.  The ambitious multi-service programs such as Future Combat Systems and Net-Centric Warfare will either be delayed, or have capabilities canceled because the satellites will not be there to support the system.  On March 11, 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned that the developers of Future Combat Systems and the Joint Strike Fighter may attempt to field the systems without adequate testing, because they would otherwise be unaffordable.[vii]

 Indeed, the common problems of the NRO, Air Force, and NASA were deemed so severe in the aftermath of the Obama inauguration, the White House established a Committee for U.S. Space Leadership, which met on Feb. 19 to discuss a revised national policy, a Space Council, and a possible Presidential Space Advisory Board, to hammer out a plan by the end of 2009 for better utilization of space.[viii]  But notice that the committee referred to “U.S. Space Leadership.”  President Obama is unlikely to alter those aspects of the Bush National Space Policy that advocated a dominant U.S. role in determining how all nations use space.

 Ordinarily, the intelligence services of UKUSA and NATO, as well as the space services of Israel, Japan, and other nations, could augment the U.S. military in regional theaters.  But this financial collapse is global.  No one will be able to pay for the weapon systems that looked achievable just two years ago.

G20/Europe and its aftermath

The first week of April proved a critical time for the Obama administration.  European leaders had to be convinced to support a $1 trillion global bailout package.  NATO leaders surrendered to the concept of expanded Afghanistan deployments, but with some caution.  Meanwhile, Obama had to deal with a recalcitrant North Korean regime conducting a test firing of the Taepodong-2 rocket April 5, and he used the opportunity to argue in Prague for global nuclear reductions.[ix]

Many more events were taking place in early April behind the scenes.  The US Air Force launched a Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellite April 3, significantly increasing its global communication capability.[x]  The Director of National Intelligence sought White House approval for an expensive “2 + 2” satellite to replace the canceled Future Imagery Architecture satellite system.[xi] The Air Force insisted it did not have a problem with this expensive new system, but it obviously meant less money would be available for other satellites.  At the National Space Symposium, Intelsat executives said they had been asked by Air Force officials to use a commercial satellite to carry attack information for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles over Afghanistan, which they agreed to do.  Space Command commander Gen. C. Robert Kehler said that the military will rely on commercial satellites for 80 percent of its traffic, even after WGS was launched.[xii]

The Air Force also made some big changes in early April to reflect the way the Pentagon considered warfare.  Control of nuclear weapons, once handled by the Space Command for Strategic Command, was placed under the new Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base.[xiii]  During the Bush administration, the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons had been made less clear, perhaps making nuclear war easier.  Now, the lines between nuclear and conventional weapons are clearer, but the Pentagon is emphasizing the “important role” of Global Strike Command, even  as Obama says he wants to reduce nuclear weapons.

The Air Force also established its new Cyber Command as the 24th Air Force, underneath the authority of Space Command.  Cyber Command will perform computer attack and computer defense for the U.S. government.  It is ironic that attention is being paid to Chinese efforts to probe computers through South Asia, when the U.S. effort is far bigger and more secret.[xiv]

And what of Pacific Command and its role in missile defense?  When North Korea launch programs were first announced in March, Pacific Command, like Japan’s defense forces, was boasting of its ability to shoot down any uncertain North Korean payloads.  The mere presence of Aegis cruisers can play a provocative role in regional disputes.  But by the end of March, military officials were being told to avoid emphasizing the role of Aegis.  No one at the National Space Symposium emphasized this capability.  The assumed failure of the satellite payload on April 5 made the Pacific Command effort to show the flag appear exaggerated, but it is certain the Aegis will be valued, not for its role in so-called Theater Missile Defense, but as a means of demonstrating U.S. power in potential regional battlefields.

As he came back from Europe, Obama realized that new missile-defense bases faced significant opposition in Poland and the Czech Republic.  He realized that Iranian and North Korean efforts to develop new weapons and space technologies cannot be halted through brazen language or new space weapons, but will be continuing issues for negotiation and dialogue.  He also realized that the limits of the fiscal 2011 budget, and even the undecided elements of fiscal 2010, will mean cutbacks in Missile Defense Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and National Security Agency.  Military space officials do not assume they can continue with the “Transformational Satellite,” or that the “Space-Based Space Surveillance” satellite will expand beyond one satellite to be launched in July.  These are the new realities of the continuing recession.[xv]

 If there is any advantage to U.S. hegemonists, it is that the crisis will affect nations that are considered adversaries of the United States.  In the aftermath of the apparent April 5 satellite failure, North Korean expansion of Taepodong-2 and -3 programs likely will be delayed, and Iran could find any weaponization programs in its uranium enrichment program may be unaffordable, particularly in an era of low oil prices.  The only U.S. adversary not affected by such a crisis, of course, is the stateless opponent, as represented by various Salafist Muslim groups.

It is not comfortable for peace activists to attach their hopes to a wish that economic conditions continue in their present state of near-depression.  But it is important to recognize that President Obama will not abandon certain policies of space domination and control because he is a peace-loving president.  He believes in U.S. dominance of the planet, as do most U.S. Democrats.  There is a significant difference between Democrats and Republicans in the way such powers are exercised, but often, the Democrats require more careful observation by the peace community.


I will end with a story from 180 years ago, during the time of the United States’ first major use of ethnic cleansing.  After the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, requiring all Native American tribes east of the Mississippi River to be forcibly moved to Oklahoma, President Andrew Jackson personally opened negotiations with the Choctaw and Creek tribes.  He told them, “I want you to be moved by force, but I will never lie to you.  Some of the people who say they want to preserve the tribes in Georgia and Tennessee say they want you to stay, but they wish to destroy your culture.  Some people like Thomas Jefferson have given public speeches supporting the tribes staying here, but they have written privately to friends that they hope that the Indian Removal Act passes.  I will tell you to leave.  Other white men will make nice promises, but those promises are lies.”

Do not misunderstand me.  I am not nostalgic for the days of George Bush simply because Bush was an honest world conqueror.  But as Andrew Jackson warned the Choctaw, we must carefully watch those who would promise hope and change while delivering the same message of war.

[i] Matthew Rothschild, “Naomi Klein Interview,” The Progressive, Feb. 2009, pg. 3

[iii] Shelby B. Spires, ‘Sessions: Don’t Cut Missile System,’ The Huntsville Times, Feb. 26, 2009,

[iv] Colin Clark, ‘MDA Cuts Likely; Hints of Change,’ DoD Buzz, March 23, 2009, ; Nathan Hodge, ‘Top General: Missle Defense is Dead, Long Live Missile Defense,’ Wired Blog, March 24, 2009

[v] Theodore Postol, ‘Defensible Missile Defense,’ The New York Times, March 12, 2009

[vi]  Siobhan Gorman, ‘CIA Signals Continuity with Bush Era,’ The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 26, 2009

[vii] Stephen Manning, ‘GAO: Big defense programs face cost overruns,’ Associated Press, March 12, 2009; Gopal Ratnam and Tony Capaccio, ‘Boeing’s Future Combat Systems Unproven, GAO Says,’ Bloomberg News Service, March 11, 2009

[viii] Turner Brinton, ‘Obama Urged to Tackle U.S. Space Problems,’ Space News, Feb. 23, 2009

[ix]Obama outlines sweeping goal of a nuclear-free world,’ Associated Press, April 5, 2009; ‘Amanpour: Why did North Korea launch rocket?’ Christiane Amanpour, CNN

[xi] Andy Pasztor and Siobhan Gorman, ‘Satellite Proposals Gain Traction After North Korea’s Launch,’ Wall Street Journal, April 6, 2009; Pamela Hess, ‘Intelligence Chiefs Itching to Buy Advanced Snoop Satellites,’ Associated Press/TechNewsWorld, April 6, 2009

[xii] Loring Wirbel, ‘Video of Donley-Kehler-Payton Press Conference,” Part 1; Part 2

[xiii]US Air Force picks base for Global Strike Command,’ Associated Press/Pakistan Daily Times, April 3, 2009

[xiv] Tom Roeder, ‘Internet Warfare Unit’s New Home to Be Decided,’ Colorado Springs Gazette, March 31, 2009; Hugh Lessig, ‘Decision on Cyber Command Pushed Back,’ DailyPress.com, April 2, 2009

Jeremy Kirk, ‘Deep Computer-Spying Network Touched 103 Countries,’ IDG News Service, March 29, 2009

[xv] Andrea Shalal-Esa, ‘Report: US Air Force Committed to Communications Satellites,’ Reuters, April 2, 2009; Jefferson Morris, ‘SBSS Launch Slips Until July,Aviation Week, March 26, 2009

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