New Internationalist

our Country Is Behind… We’re Losign Ground’

Issue 97

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THE NUCLEAR ARMS RACE[image, unknown] Talking to the technicians

[image, unknown]

Photo: Camera Press
Photo: Camera Press
'Our country is behind...
we're losign ground'
They could not be more different.
Hank Shumacher has been designing weapons for over thirty years; is politically conservative; and does not dwell on moral aspects of his profession. Morris Downing has only worked in the arms industry for a few years; is politically liberal; and is obsessed by the moral dilemma.
Earlier this year Mark Gerzon interviewed these men, both of whom work on `Technology Row' - the high-technology corporations that ring Boston, Massachusetts, on Route 128. But, different as they are, they agreed on one thing: while their skills are being devoted to military projects, the rest of the American economy - which sorely needs those skills - is sick and getting worse.

'The Navy is funding my current project, Shumacher began, 'because they wanted an anti-submarine weapon that could see more, find smaller targets, more quickly and more accurately. When you track something, you have to be faster and smarter than your target. That's why the Navy called me up.

His voice is resonant with pride. In a world of unimaginative bureaucrats, he sees himself as a craftsman, a maverick. He identifies a good idea, takes the initiative and makes it happen.

The project began when a 'high-ranking Navy officer' contacted him about improving the guidance system of the Advanced Light-Weight Torpedo.

The Pentagon was concerned that a new generation of Soviet submarines would out-run, outdive or out-think even the most sophisticated torpedoes in the American arsnal.

'I've never been involved in kill mechanisms, he explained, refering to the explosive component, or 'payload'. 'Others might be turned on by seeing how big a hole they can make in a steel plate. But not me. In a world of tactical weapons, kill mechanisms are intellectually boring. And in a nuclear world, it's hopeless.'

What challenged Shumacher was information systems, enabling a weapon to hear more (sonar) or see more (radar). His contribution to the Torpedo's guidance system, according to him, increased its kill capability considerably.

According to Shumacher, few people leave military work far reasons of conscience. 'If someone feels strongly about being involved with military-related research, they wouldn't start in the first place. The truth is: once they're in it, very few people think much about it.'

'My colleagues who work on nuclear devices don't do it for a reason. They do it because they are nuclear physicists. And that's where the funds are.'

The interruption triggers a new subject - economics - about which Shumacher feels strongly.

'Any of us in analytical work could make important contributions to other fields. 1 know we could. But the money isn't there.'

'Our country is behind in all heavy industry. We're losing ground because corporations are fat and have made stupid decisions. I couldn't get a job, say, in energy research or information systems that was as interesting as mine even by taking a drop in salary.'

* * *

Economics is also foremost in Morris Downing's mind. 'As the "chip" revolutionized computers, so fibre optics could revolutionize communications,' he says about his field. Fibre optics research focusses on transmitting information through glass filaments which, though thinner and Iighter than copper wires, can carry far more data.

'The governments of England, France, Germany and Canada are all trying to cash in on recent breakthroughs. The technology is here. The only question is: who will get the biggest share of the market?'

Thanks to fibre optics, for example, telephone equipment can bevastly more efficient; the Japanese, in fact, are already installing such innovative equipment in the United States. Fibre optics is also used in the new 'wired cities' projects, information retrieval systems hooked up to televisions and telephones. Both Canada and Japan are funding prototypes.

And the United States?

'To my knowledge; says Downing,'there is no government non-military funding for fibre optics. The problem is: Washington is backing only military applications of the new telecommunications technology.

'The big money for fibre optics research in this area is coming from the Air Force for the new MX missile system. They've been hiring over at GTE la competing electronics corporation also located in Boston). If I took a job over there, I could earn 20 per cent more than I do now.'

Anyone who reads the local papers here would have seen the enormous two-page GTE recruitment ads. They encouraged scientists to attend a free luncheon to explore 'exciting career opportunities'. They attracted thousands of job-seekers, including one of Downing's most talented co-workers.

But if he has moral qualms, what about his own work for the military? 'My work is applying fibre optics to improve tactical command control. That means: to help our armed forces communicate better amongst themselves. The way I see it, since we have a military establishment, the best we can hope for is that no one will go off crazy and start a war. By improving communications, I hope the President will be better able to keep the military leashed. So the way I am using it, fibre optics is essentially a defensive technology.'

But Downing admits that he is the exception.

'I'd say only about 10 per cent of my colleagues share my concerns. Maybe another 10 per cent are at the other extreme - they'd do anything that would give us military superiority. And the other 80 per cent: well, I don't think they think much about it. To them, it's just a job.'

We shook hands and said goodbye, but he was suddenly overtaken with a final thought: 'You know what I'd do with that $20-50 billion of the MX?' I shook me head. 'I'd do a fantastic solar energy demonstration project. So far the government has not put its money where its mouth is as far as energy is concerned. It's about time we gave this country something tangible, something usable, for their tax dollars . . . '

'More missiles.' He sighed. 'It's not defence; it's waste.'


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