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More About “Command and Control”: Arms Race in Space

Command and Control Film Commentary Part 3:
Masters of Space

Continued from “Helen’s Own Highly Explosive Nuclear Crisis,” inspired by the documentary film Command and Control, by Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser

by HelenHighly

This bomb is not from my childhood. This bomb is in the future, and it’s heading straight toward us all. It’s vast and more deadly than anything that has come before. I’m talking about real-life star wars – an arms race in outer space. You think that’s a joke? Think again: the militarization of space. Consider this quote from General Joseph W. Ashy, the former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Space Command – a statement he made to Aviation Week and Space Technology in 1996:

“It’s politically sensitive, but it’s going to happen. Some people don’t want to hear this, and it sure isn’t in vogue, but absolutely we’re going to fight in space.” He explains further, “We’re going to fight from space, and we’re going to fight into space. That’s why the U.S. has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms. We will engage terrestrial targets someday – ships, airplanes, land targets – from space.”

To appreciate the threat, and the secrecy surrounding the threat, we need to go back for a little more history. Wikipedia again:

“’The Outer Space Treaty’ …was opened for signature in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union on 27 January 1967, and entered into force on 10 October 1967. …The Outer Space Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law. Among its principles, it bars states …from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in outer space. It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications. The treaty also states that the exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit all countries and shall be free for exploration and use by all the States,” and that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

Got it? That’s the official international law about outer space. The United States was one of the three key players who initiated it – back in 1967. But now read this, from Third World Traveler:

“On November 1, 2000 the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to reaffirm the Outer Space Treaty – the fundamental international law that establishes that space should be reserved for peaceful uses. Almost 140 nations voted for the resolution entitled ‘Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space.’ It recognizes ‘the common interest of all mankind in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,’ and declares ‘that prevention of an arms race in outer space would avert a grave danger for international peace and security.’

Only two nations declined to support this bill – the United States and Israel. Both abstained. For the United States, the issue goes way beyond missile defense. The U.S. military explicitly says it wants to ‘control’ space to protect its economic interests and establish superiority over the world.

“Several documents reveal the plans. Take ‘Vision for 2020,’ a 1996 report of the U.S. Space Command, which ‘coordinates the use of Army, Navy, and Air Force space forces’ and was set up in 1985 to ‘help institutionalize the use of space.’ The multicolored cover of ‘Vision for 2020’ shows a weapon shooting a laser beam from space and zapping a target below.

“The report opens with the following: ‘U.S. Space Command – dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict. A century ago, Nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests by ruling the seas,’ the report notes. ‘Now it is time to rule space.’

The medium of space is the fourth medium of warfare-along with land, sea, and air,” it proclaims on page three. “The emerging synergy of space superiority with land, sea, and air superiority will lead to Full Spectrum Dominance.”

The Air Force publishes similar pamphlets. Nuclear power is crucial to this scenario. ‘In the next two decades, new technologies will allow the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness to be used to deliver energy and mass as force projection in tactical and strategic conflict,’ says ‘New World Vistas: Air and Space Power for the 21st Century,’ a 1996 U.S. Air Force board report.

“The PR. spin is that the U.S. military push into space is about ‘missile defense’ or defense of U.S. space satellites. But the volumes of material coming out of the military are concerned mainly with offense – with using space to establish military domination over the world below.

“Even the Council on Foreign Relations – usually characterized as centrist, has come on board. In 1998, it published a booklet entitled ‘Space, Commerce, and National Security,’ written by Air Force Colonel Frank Klotz, a military fellow at the Council. ‘The most immediate task of the United States in the years ahead is to sustain and extend its leadership in the increasingly intertwined fields of military and commercial space. This requires a robust and continuous presence in space,’ says the report. …The U.S. government is pouring massive amounts of public money – an estimated $6 billion a year, not counting what is secretly spent – into the military development of space.”

For the record, unlike all the other info I have presented in my Command and Control film commentary series, the above text comes from a website that is not owned and operated by the U.S. government, and I have not fully fact-checked its veracity. Thus, it is perhaps not as shockingly, without-a-doubt true as all the other information I have reported. So… you may be suspicious of it, as you wish (and investigate further as you see fit).

But, in conclusion, I will end this seemingly endless essay, that started with a review of the Command and Control movie, with this stunning and absolutely legitimate quote from Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Secretary-General of the U.N. from 1997-2006, Kofi Annan:

“Above all, we must guard against the misuse of outer space,” Kofi Annan said as he opened the 1999 U.N. conference on space militarization in Vienna.

“We must not allow this century, so plagued with war and suffering, to pass on its legacy, when the technology at our disposal will be even more awesome. We cannot view the expanse of space as another battleground for our Earthly conflicts.”

But, in only the first quarter of the new century, that is exactly what the U.S. military is doing.


Click here to read Helen’s synopsis and review of the Command and Control documentary.

 

Command and Control: The Titan II

“Command and Control” Review: Kenner / Schlosser Will Blow Your Mind

Command and Control Review: Earth-Shaking Revelations Abound

by HelenHighly

Synopsis:
Command and Control movie poster
Command and Control movie poster

Command and Control, which premiered at the Tribeca 2016 Film Festival, is a high-stakes documentary thriller, from Robert Kenner, director of the Emmy-award-winning film Food, Inc, which was based on Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book, Fast Food Nation.  The docu-drama duo has teamed up again to bring us Command and Control, based on Schlosser’s critically-acclaimed book of the same name. (The book was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.) In this film, Schlosser and Kenner explore the deadly “human error” that led to an accident at the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.

Titan II Explosion Site
Titan II Explosion Site

The chilling new documentary details the unlikely chain of events that caused the accident and the feverish efforts to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States. Command and Control exposes the terrifying truth about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal, demonstrates what can happen when the weapons built to protect us threaten to destroy us, and probes how mutually assured destruction might actually mean self-annihilation.

Titan II Warhead
Titan II Warhead

One might wonder if, in today’s post-Cold-War era of disarmament and new, advanced-technology drone warfare, this story is still relevant. If it feels like old news, consider: The United States has about 4,700 nuclear weapons in its current arsenal – enough to completely obliterate this country more than 20 times over. And once a nuclear weapon is fully assembled, its safety is never absolute.

Harold Brown was Secretary of Defense when the Damascus accident occurred, and he only recently revealed to Command and Control filmmakers, “Accidents were not unusual in the defense department. There must have been several every day.”  As stated in this documentary: “Nuclear weapons are machines, and every machine ever invented eventually goes wrong.”

The filmmaker warns, “Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial – and they work.”

More Than a Synopsis:

It’s a spy-movie thriller that pivots on a horror-movie trick.

There is a special category of films at Tribeca 2016 that I called “You Think You Know But You Don’t.” Perhaps it’s more accurate to say “I Thought I Knew But I Didn’t,” but I’m going to assume that I am not unlike most of you reading this, and I am writing this for you to read, so I will use “you,” which could just as well be replaced with “we.” Either way, Command and Control is a perfect example of the forenamed category. Even when you already know how it ends, and even though you just now read the synopsis, and even if you have some experience with this topic, this film still warrants your participation as audience – to sit for 92 minutes and watch and listen to how this story unfolds as told by these two immensely talented men, Screenwriter/Director Robert Kenner and Screenwriter Eric Schlosser.

Titan Missile Pit Crew
Titan Missile Pit Crew

You have to hear the tremble in the voice of the guy (not a portrayal – the actual man) who is still alive but was only 21 years old when the socket dropped from his wrench as he did routine maintenance on the Titan II missile and almost blew up our country – his country.  On top of that missile sat a warhead three times more powerful than all the bombs dropped in World War II, including both atomic bombs. You have to hear David Powell himself explain how he was just a kid – a proud hillbilly from rural Kentucky, who’s first thought as he reached for the falling socket but couldn’t catch it, was that he “didn’t want to get in trouble” and have to tell his mother.

The Socket That Fell From the Wrench
The Socket That Fell From the Wrench

You have to see his work partner, who was only 18 years old at the time, explain how he “had no fear” and was excited “to play with the missile fuel” in the most powerful weapon that had ever existed – “a monster ready to go off,” and that his training included “preparation to destroy an entire civilization – without hesitation,” and he was “willing to do it” (determent only works if you’re actually willing to drop the bomb), but he had never considered that our own warhead might detonate on our own continent.

Titan Missile Explosion
Titan Missile Explosion

You have to hear the aching tone in the voice of this man who tells how he “was ready to take on the world” when he joined the PTS team, but on that fateful day, he stood helpless next to his co-worker as they watched that socket fall 70 feet down the length of the missile and bounce off the platform and puncture a hole in the fuel tank skin, and how they didn’t fully report what had happened – what was happening (highly explosive rocket-fuel pouring out of the missile), because they didn’t want their commander “to freak out.” When they finally admitted the truth, more than 30 minutes later, the situation was out of control. (By comparison: Once launched, the missile could reach a target over half a world away in less than 30 minutes.)

You have to endure the excruciating, minute-by-minute details of what happened next and then next and then unfathomably next, until a few hours later the missile completely exploded, destroying its underground silo and blowing the nine-megaton warhead … to literally God-only-knew where. (Note: one megaton = one million tons of TNT.)  “We escaped the cold war without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion,” said General George Lee Butler of the U.S. Strategic Air Command.

This film will pound your heart and rattle your brain; it will pound your brain and rattle your heart.

  • The image that haunts you: The green-grey glow that surrounds the majestic missile – 10 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall, like a giant gleaming bullet, loaded into a concrete gun barrel, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky.
  • The sound of manual typewriter keys, as data is spelled out on the screen – the metallic clickity-clack of what we now recognize as an antiquated and imperfect machine but was a “high-tech” business tool at the time.
  • The word that, when spoken, will make you never hear it quite the same again: “When you’re working on a weapon of mass destruction, you’re counting on everything to work perfect all the time, and things just don’t work perfect all the time.” – First Lieutenant Allan Childers, who was there that day.
  • The context given to simple facts that make you appreciate how complicated those facts really are: It would take fewer than 200 nuclear missiles to annihilate the entire Soviet Union. In the mid-60’s we had 32,000. (We have thousands still hidden around the U.S. Do you wonder where they are? And who is doing “routine maintenance” on them now?*)
Launch Control Panel
Launch Control Panel

You have to be present to comprehend all the little revelations that cannot be captured in a synopsis but that slowly expose themselves and stack precariously, one on top of the other. These are the moments that you will take to bed with you and that you will tell your friend the next day. One revelation that strikes in this film (as well as in another important documentary at Tribeca 2016, National Bird, which is about the U.S. drone program) is that America routinely puts its most powerful weapons and its most dangerous decisions in the hands of virtual children who are patently ill-equipped for the responsibility.

Command and Control is a must-watch film because you must experience the juxtaposition of vigilant precision-on-a-minuscule-scale against the gargantuan-danger and gross-miscalculation that created this event. You have to see the way these men actually light a match and burn the little slip of paper on which is written the daily code that opens the 740-ton door into the missile silo – the spy-movie level of secrecy to safeguard against enemy intrusion, and then come to realize that despite all these preventative measures, it is a horror-movie trick that gets them in the end: Don’t lock the door! The Killer is Inside the House! The danger is not our enemy; the danger is us.

Titan II MIssile Silo
Titan II MIssile Silo

These are the things that make Command and Control a captivating movie and are the reason you should watch it. And despite all the “spoilers” I have written, they barely make a dent in the mass of shock and awe contained in this film. This is truly a movie – not just a news story for the history channel. Although, PBS American Experience already owns it, so… that’s good and bad. But it’s mostly good because that means more people will see it, and this is something you definitely should see. Nonetheless, my point is that this film could sustain – visually, intellectually, emotionally, it could sustain the size and expectations that come with a large screen in a movie theater. Despite being an astounding documentary, this film is also a dramatic thriller.


∗One of the interviews included in this movie answers this question about the country’s current nuclear arsenal, ominously: Harold Brown, previous Secretary of Defense reports, “the degree of oversight and attention has, if anything, gotten worse.” Separately, on November 14, 2014, the negligence was acknowledged when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke at a Pentagon news conference: “We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here,” Hagel said.

Can’t Stop Thinking About It: There’s a saying that just one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, environmental and atmospheric scientists Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon explain why the detonation of even a “limited number” of nuclear weapons could have repercussions for millions of people around the world far away from a nuclear conflict. You can read it by clicking here.


Watching the Command and Control documentary ignited a private memory of my own — something that connected me personally to that tragic story, and after going home and doing a little Googling, a series of nuclear bombs exploded in my childhood. So, I’ve researched and written my own spin-off essay (or, Command and Control Commentary — Part 2) that could almost be its own documentary. Here’s the intro:

Helen’s Own Highly Explosive Nuclear Crisis

I was “a space-age baby.” That’s what my mother wrote in my baby album. I grew up being told the story of when we were in the hospital after she gave birth to me: There was this amazing few minutes when all the infants were left alone, even if they were crying, and all the nurses and mothers (along with millions of other Americans) turned to the TV to watch The First American be Launched into Space. It was a spectacular, patriotic event, and my father helped to make it possible. Click here to read more. 


Where to see the film in theaters: Here’s a list of screenings, coming to your city soon.

Watch the Command and Control movie trailer: