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5 Weapons from Star Trek That America’s Military Wishes It Had

The Buzz

In Star Trek's vision of the future, humanity has ended poverty, hunger and racism. In fact, all the worst aspects of human existence have been swept away -- except war.

Warfare and weapons have been a prominent theme in Star Trek since the series debuted in 1966. Barrages of phasers and photon torpedoes erupt from starships traveling faster than the speed of light, only to be repelled by deflector shields that block their deadly energies.

Never mind that much of this is fantasy. Traveling faster than light is impossible, as far as we know (though not even the physicists are certain). Space is big, ships are small, and actual space combat would be closer to a game of hide-and-seek than the battle of Jutland or Leyte Gulf (for a fascinating interview I had with a real naval expert, see this).

Nonetheless, Star Trek and Star Wars have shaped popular perceptions of space warfare. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. But either way,  some of those Star Trek weapons would make the Pentagon's day. Consider these:

Cloaking Device:

Stealth has become the overriding design feature of America's most advanced warplanes, such as the F-22, F-35 and B-2. But invisibility -- the ultimate stealth -- was portrayed as a tactical system back in 1966, when Captain Kirk and the Enterprise first encountered the Romulan cloaking device in the episode "Balance of Terror.”

An invisible warship has enormous flexibility, not just as a weapons system but also as a transport or reconnaissance vessel. It can get close to a target, or evade enemy weapons. Because adversaries can never be sure of detecting a cloaked ship, they must work on the assumption that hidden ships may attack or are spying on them at any moment, thus creating a force multiplier effect far out of proportion to the actual battlefield capabilities of the invisibility screen.

At least that's how it works in theory. "Balance of Terror" is a perfect allegory for the worst fears about America's stealth aircraft. Remember that while the Romulan ship was cloaked, it could still be tracked well enough for the Enterprise to fire at it. Not with pinpoint accuracy, but well enough to damage the Bird of Prey. The Romulan ship also sacrifices much in capability to retain stealth, notably the fact that the cloaking device consumes so much power that it must uncloak to fire its weapons.

Critics say the F-35's stealth can be defeated, and that it has given up so many capabilities in the name of stealth that it will be a lackluster fighter at best. Perhaps the designers should have talked to the Romulans first.

Transporter Beam:

The Pentagon is spending billions to develop a Prompt Global Strike missile that can land anywhere in the world within one hour. But how about dropping a bomb instantaneously? That's exactly what the Star Trek transporter could do. An instantaneous delivery system that should be able to dispatch bombs as easily as people and cargo.

It would also seem to be a useful device for scattering mines in front of enemy ships moving at interstellar speeds. Curiously, Star Trek ships don't really scatter mines as tactical weapons on TV and the movies, though the ships in the Star Fleet Command computer and Star Fleet Battles paper wargame use mines quite readily.

Perhaps the people who would most love the transporter would be the Special Operations commandos, for whom just getting to a remote or heavily defended location is half the battle. Instead of slogging through the jungle or hoping some jihadi with a rifle doesn't shoot down your helicopter, wouldn't it be nice to have Scotty beam you down into the Al Qaeda base?

On the other hand, if Al Qaeda has transporters, the Department of Homeland Security's job becomes much more interesting.

Plasma Torpedo:

"Balance of Terror” was perhaps the most influential TV episode for space warfare. Not only did it unveil the cloaking device, but the Romulan plasma torpedo as well.

The plasma torpedo seems like a cross between those big Chinese missiles designed to kill aircraft carriers, and the massive U.S. bunker-buster bombs like the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). Except that where the MOP destroys bunkers and tunnels, the plasma torpedo could disintegrate not just a Federation outpost dug a mile deep under an asteroid, but the entire asteroid as well.

Spock describes the torpedo as an "enveloping energy plasma, forcing an implosion." Its technical details aren't discussed in detail, but it obviously has a guidance system and faster-than-light capability to chase the Enterprise at warp speed. It does appear to be a short-ranged weapon (at least by interstellar standards); by the time it hits a fleeing Enterprise, enough of its energy has dissipated to allow the ship to survive.

Borg Cube:

The Borg Cube is in many ways the perfect weapon. Not only does it destroy enemy ships. It assimilates them and their crews, thus enhancing Borg military resources while reducing the enemy's. In that sense, it is not just a conventional warship. It is a psychological operations (Psyops) system, except that instead of converting the enemy through propaganda, the Borg convert them by implanting control units in their brains.

In a way, the Borg way of war harkens back to the days of Earth's Thirty Years War of the 17th Century, as well as Napoleon's armies. Those soldiers lived off the land by plundering supplies from farms and villages, preferably -- though not always -- in enemy territory. By assimilating the people and machines of their enemies, the Borg can essentially supply themselves indefinitely.

Doomsday Machine:

The most awesome and most insane of Star Trek weapons, the Doomsday Machine was a giant robotic ship built by a race in another galaxy. It was supposed to destroy enemy planets and then digest them for fuel, thus giving it infinite range. Unfortunately, it also destroyed the planets of the race that built it.

A 1967 allegory for the Cold War nuclear arms race, the Doomsday Machine was an example of a weapon too powerful for its own good. In this case, the capacity for destruction became the capacity for self-destruction.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for Waris Boring. Follow him on Twitter:@Mipeck1.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0/Flickr/ Robert Young from the UK. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Iran: A Bigger and Badder Threat than ISIS?

The Buzz

Once alerted to the menace posed by brutal terrorists in Iraq and Syria, the world has swung into action with vigor and resolve—and enough potent military hardware to make even the most hardened terrorist think twice. Already ISIL’s decentralizing its main force elements to hide amidst innocent women and children. Truly, atrocity and cowardice are bedfellows.

But focusing excessively on ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria can distract from broader strategic priorities. Highlighting one dilemma can diminish our international peripheral vision, to the point where other pressing issues seem to have abated or disappeared.

Part of the challenge with ISIL is to degrade and contain it, while not constraining the international community’s broader focus. Admittedly, ISIL casts a long and fearful shadow, but there are potentially worse—albeit quieter—threats lurking, which also demand urgent attention.

They include the maverick trifecta of Iran, Russia and North Korea. Unlike ISIL, each of those international “problem-states” comes disproportionately better armed, including a ready-made or emerging nuclear capability, accompanied by an unpredictable senior leadership.

The first unresolved problem confronting the world is what exactly to do about Iran. The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran would dwarf that which is posed by ISIL, whose mayhem and carnage a coalition of nations is now working to suppress. For almost a decade, since September 2006, Iran has steadfastly and with contempt thumbed its nose at the international community, by remaining deliberately in breach of its nuclear arms control obligations.

It has taken that sustained and obdurate stance for three reasons. First, because of the prestige, power and authority which Iran believes such weapons would give it, both regionally and beyond. In some Iranian eyes it would be a much stronger player to be feared by all parties; even an equal to Israel. Second, Iran’s strategic leadership remains fundamentally and violently opposed to a world order in which both the United States and Israel continue to retain disproportionate influence. And, third, Iran probably interprets longstanding international inaction on their nuclear weapons program to date as a strong indicator of longer-term vacillation and weakness.

The issues of ISIL and Iran overlap in at least two ways. The international community’s focus on the former gives Iran more time and enhanced cover to develop its thinly veiled nuclear capability. And depending on how current to mid-term events unfold in the Middle East, Tehran might see a pretext, or reason, to initiate military action against ISIL in its own right, at least to further extend or expand proxy-military actions against the West.

Doubtless, those sensitivities and threats are well appreciated by the war’s principal leaders; including ISIS/ISIL’s own twisted hierarchy. But what’s perhaps less acknowledged, at least publicly, is the growing need now for ISIL to be degraded and contained, concurrent with a broad and holistic internationally agreed approach to Iran.

By having put Iran on the backburner for the last decade—for obvious and understandable reasons called Iraq and Afghanistan—the world, and especially the West, has forfeited the opportunity of solving the problems separately.

Now, the issues of both ISIL and Iran must be confronted and resolved closer together. At the least, it’s time for the international community to engage and agree upon an effective strategy to contain Iran.
Almost certainly, such a strategy will include multiple and complementary lines of engagement across the international community and with Iran itself. Those will embrace the broad sweep from diplomacy, to international consensus and coalition building, to economic sanctions, and in extremis, the possibility of military action.

By default, the US, as it has done with ISIL, must inevitably lead the way, notwithstanding its inherent national war-weariness. But whichever combination of the above is agreed, the time for action on Iran is now much closer than it has ever been.

The wider world was finally roused to the true menace of ISIL by its evil mix of malevolent atrocity exported by social media. But replace the ghastly specter of ISIL’s severed heads and slain thousands, with an Iranian nuclear device used somewhere in the Middle East—and the mind is concentrated wonderfully, about the broader potential for a worse crisis.
It’s time the international community took Iran off the backburner.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here. 

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsISIS RegionsIran

America's Secret Weapon in Space?: Behold the X-37B

The Buzz

Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the US has lacked its own vehicle for launching astronauts. This hasn't stopped America from launching its own mini-shuttle without a crew.

The X-37B spacecraft is roughly the size of a small car. It has flown in space three times on classified missions. After roughly 22 months in space, it seems that the latest mission is preparing to come home.

What is this mysterious vehicle doing? Nobody really knows, and that's quite remarkable in these times. Legions of amateur analysts track classified satellite launches. They can usually work out the true nature of a mission by studying its orbit and assembling other pieces of evidence. Thus satellites that are designed to act as secretive eyes in the sky are normally unmasked quickly.

The X-37B is different. We know it is an experimental space plane that was originally owned by NASA before it was transferred to the US Air Force. We also suspect that there's something secret underneath the clamshell doors of its small payload bay. But we don't know exactly what it is or what it is doing. Open sources and technical analysis doesn't yield many clues. There has also been no 'leakage' of secrets through whispers and gossip.

There's obviously a lot of technical wizardry at work with this spacecraft, but the absolutely hermetic nature of the program is also remarkable. When so many secrets have been leaked in recent times, this is one program that remains steadfastly under wraps.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Kim Jong-un’s Vanishing Act: The Scary Reality if He Dies

The Buzz

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for over one month, failing to participate in a major Supreme People’s Assembly gathering and anniversary commemorations of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. These are the same sorts of events that his father, Kim Jong-il, failed to attend six years ago following a stroke from which it took months for him to recover. North Korea’s official media has publicly acknowledged Kim’s “discomfort.”

But perhaps what is more notable is that international media seem to “need” Kim Jong-un more than the domestic media, even while deriding North Korean media coverage of Kims pointing at things. The divergence in domestic and international media responses should give pause precisely because it reveals the way that the Kim cult of personality has distracted from our understanding of the underlying state of the North Korean regime: within North Korea, the people feel Kim’s presence even when he is absent; externally, North Korean propaganda has made Kim’s presence so critical that international media regard his absence as disquieting, even in without supporting indicators of instability or upset in Pyongyang. In this way, the cult of personality distorts our focus on the state and relationships among the underlying institutions (the party, the military, the state) as factors likely to influence the stability of the North Korean regime.

Likewise, publicly known international responses to Kim Jong-un’s absence can be grouped into three categories: whistling past the graveyard and alternately worrying or hoping that Kim will find his way into the graveyard. But no state has yet tipped its hand as to what it would do in the event of a real crisis of leadership in North Korea.

Kim Jong-il’s absence in 2008 was significant because his health crisis paralyzed North Korean diplomacy and accelerated succession planning that eventually unveiled and elevated Kim Jong-un as Kim Jong-il’s successor. But it did not ultimately have implications for the viability or continuity of the North Korean state. In contrast, Kim Jong-un’s absence has coincided with a period of unprecedented DPRK diplomatic activity under Kim Jong-un. Although Kim Jong-un’s relative youth mitigates against the likelihood that his health issues will debilitating, he does not have grown children, which underscores the potential complexities of succession and the need for a succession plan should something go wrong. Kim’s absence from public view by itself does not appear likely to shake the regime, but it reveals the vulnerabilities the regime faces as a result of its dependence on the “line of Mount Paekdu” as the overarching source of legitimacy behind Kim rule.

Kim Jong-un does not have a viable successor within his own line and is unlikely to have one for two decades. Moreover, as part of his own succession struggle, Kim Jong-il introduced the thought that “side branches” in the Kim genealogical tree constitute potential threats to legitimacy. But in so doing he introduced constraints on the viability of Kim Jong-un’s siblings (older brothers Kim Jong-chol and even the exiled Kim Jong-nam) or sister Kim Yo-jung (rumored to have already taken a central role in management of state affairs) as potential successors to Kim Jong-un. This circumstance heightens the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s demise could spark a complicated family battle for succession that could upend the viability of the regime. In this respect, the viability of Kim family rule in North Korea may appear more fragile than it has been in decades. Kim Jong-un’s absence points to this fragility.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Which U.S. States Win and Lose Most From Falling Oil Prices?

The Buzz

Oil prices are plunging. Which U.S. states will benefit most – and which are most at risk?

A study that the Council on Foreign Relations published about a year ago looked at exactly this question. The research, by Mine Yucel of the Dallas Fed and Stephen Brown of UNLV, ranked Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Tennessee as the biggest potential winners, and Wyoming, Oklahoma, and North Dakota as those with the most to lose.

Oil prices have fallen by about twenty percent in the last few months. Brown and Yucel combined statistical analysis of the historical relationship between oil prices and employment with current data about state economies to estimate what a twenty-five percent price rise would do jobs. They note that the same analysis can generate insight into the potential impact of a price plunge. This map (also see above), which I’ve created by assuming that an oil price drop is as bad for jobs as an oil price rise is good for employment (Brown and Yucel discuss the value and limits of such an assumption in the paper), shows the results.

Brown and Yucel add some additional insight into the dynamics at work here:

“States like Texas and Louisiana that have downstream oil and gas industries that benefit from falling energy prices such as refining and petrochemicals would be less affected. In addition, states in which natural gas is more prominent than oil are likely to see less harm from falling oil prices. With the recent weakening in the relationship between oil and natural gas prices, a decline in oil prices does not necessarily imply as big a change in natural gas prices as it once did, lessening the effect of an oil price decline.”

They also provide historical perspective:

“When oil prices collapsed to near about eleven dollars per barrel in 1986, the Texas economy went into a deep recession for two years. Economic output contracted 5.6 percent and employment fell 1.1 percent…. Even though oil and gas extraction accounted for 19 percent of the Texas economy in 1981, that share was the second smallest among the eight oil-sensitive states (West Virginia was smallest). As a percentage of state GDP, the oil and gas sector accounted for 49 percent in Alaska, 37 percent in Wyoming, 35 percent in Louisiana, and 20 percent in North Dakota. The 1986 oil price crash also caused a recession in most of these states, with employment declines largest in Wyoming (-5.9 percent) and Alaska (-4.5 percent)—states with the largest oil and gas output shares.”

The historical record – both anecdotal and leveraged using statistics – is far from a perfect guide to the future, particular with massive changes in the U.S. oil and gas industry in recent years. And the fall in prices isn’t yet remotely comparable to 1986. Nonetheless, if you’re looking to see where and how falling prices might help or pinch economically, the Brown and Yucel study is a great place to start.

This piece first appeared in the CFR blog Energy, Security and Climate here.

TopicsEnergy RegionsUnited States

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