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Return of the Cold War?

February 21, a three-stage Navy SM-3 missile hit a satellite the size of a school bus, and blew it to pieces.[1] The bizarre explanation for this from the Pentagon, was that they were concerned for peoples’ health. The fuel tank on the satellite (which was falling out of orbit) contains several hundred pounds of something called hydrazine, which is a health hazard. Don’t believe the “health” explanation. The missile strike marks a serious escalation in the arms race, a race that may have slowed after the end of the Cold War, but never really went away.

First, the hydrazine “threat” is completely overblown. As Time magazine pointed out, “It’s extremely hard for a spacecraft component to survive reentry even if you want it to … The hydrazine tank … is unlikely to make it through the heat and aerodynamic violence of the plunge that awaits it, meaning that it will spill its contents high in the atmosphere, where it will represent barely a breath of gas that will disperse harmlessly.”[2]

The real reason for the satellite strike is military competition with Pentagon rivals. CNN reports that: “In January 2007, China used a land-based missile to destroy a 2,200-pound satellite that was orbiting 528 miles above the Earth.”[3] The destruction of the hydrazine-carrying satellite this month by the Pentagon is their way of saying to China, “what you can do, we can do better.”

In fact, the missile used in the strike is part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, an integral part of what the Pentagon calls “Missile Defense” but what most of us call “Star Wars.” In 2002, the system was tested “successfully” according to the Missile Defense web site. Not all agreed. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists was very sceptical, saying that missile defense would require hitting a tiny object, maybe one metre long, while the target used in the test was huge – a 10.5 metre long rocket. But it had to be that big, they said, because of the “relatively poor capability” of the radar used to track incoming missiles.[4] The Pentagon concluded they needed to test this technology “against more stressing ballistic missile targets and target scenarios.”[5] That is exactly the opportunity presented by the satellite that was falling out of orbit. It became the Star Wars equivalent of a clay pigeon to test the capabilities of a system which is designed for the terrifying prospect of war in space.

What we have is a return to what we thought was over – an arms race between Great Powers, playing Russian Roulette with the lives of the people of the world.

Most thought this was over because the last arms race was embedded in the Cold War, which was almost universally seen as a competition between capitalism on the one side and communism on the other. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, analysts both left and right saw this as the triumph of capitalism over communism, and the end of the conditions which created the arms race.

This was terribly misleading. The Soviet Union, at the centre of the competition with the West, was a completely class-ridden society – a million miles removed from anything resembling communism or socialism. We cannot judge societies by the labels attached to them by their rulers. Socialism has to do with the deep extension of democracy to every aspect of the economy and the state. With the rise of Stalin, all aspects of democracy in the Russian state were expunged – and the wonderful economic democracy of the early years of the Russian Revolution disappeared when the workers’ councils (soviets) ceased to be more than rubber stamps for the state-appointed managers.

Russia was state-capitalist, and the competition to carve up the world between the U.S. and Russia world was no different in kind from the competition to carve up the world between England, France, Germany and Italy in an earlier epoch. The reason an arms race has “returned” is that it never went away. When societies are class-ridden and based on the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of tiny minorities, then competition between these powers is inevitable, and the “classic” form of competition between states is military.[6]

We know that the Pentagon does not represent the forces of “freedom” that it always uses as justification for its muscle-flexing. By the same token, the Chinese state which is blowing up satellites with missiles is no more “communist” than the Russian state under Stalin, Brezhnev and others who used military force to crush revolution in Hungary, lay waste to Afghanistan, and throw away masses of money on a what remains the world’s second largest collection of nuclear ballistic missiles.

Marine General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could barely control his glee when announcing the successful strike against the rogue satellite. His smile might get even broader if the U.S. Congress approves its budget request. Submitted to Congress in the first week of February, the 2009 budget asks for $515 billion, up eight percent from the amount allocated last year. According to The Christian Science Monitor: “This request, adjusted for inflation, is the biggest since the end of World War II.” And it doesn’t even cover “war operations” whose first tab will be $70 billion for 2009, which likely represents “only a down payment on next year’s war costs.”[7]

To wipe the smile off the Pentagon’s face will require a movement against war that is every bit as international as the militarism of Washington, Beijing and Moscow.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Peter Grier and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Missile Shoots Down Satellite – But Why?” The Christian Science Monitor, February 22, 2008,
[2] Jeffrey Kluger, “Was a Satellite Shootdown Necessary?” Time, February 20, 2008
[3] “Pentagon confident satellite’s toxic fuel destroyed,”, February 21, 2008
[4] David Wright, “An Analysis of the 25 January 2002 Test of the Aegis-LEAP Interceptor for Navy Theater-Wide,” Union of Concerned Scientists Working Paper, March 3, 2002
[5] Missile Defense Agency, “Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (Aegis BMD),”
[6] For more on the theory of state capitalism in Russia, see Tony Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis (London: International Socialism, 1964), Raya Dunayevskaya, “The Nature of the Russian Economy,” The New International, December 1946/January 1947, and C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, “State Capitalism and World Revolution”, 1950
[7] Gordon Lubold, “Pentagon asks for Biggest Budget Hike Since World War II,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 2008

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