Life sometimes does imitate art, even if it takes over twenty years to do so. In the 1985 comedy Real Genius, students at a California technical university thwart a government plan to develop an airborne laser-assassination weapon. In 2008, the military has succeeded in creating an airborne laser weapon platform that provides plausible deniability for covert operations:
Boeing announced today the first ever test firing of a real-life ray gun that could become US special forces’ way to carry out covert strikes with “plausible deniability.”
In tests earlier this month at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Boeing’s Advanced Tactical Laser — a modified C-130H aircraft — “fired its high-energy chemical laser through its beam control system. The beam control system acquired a ground target and guided the laser beam to the target, as directed by ATL’s battle management system.” …
But what Fancher didn’t mention (and what I explore over on the New Scientist web site) is that this capability will allow Special Forces to strike with maximum precision, from long distances — without being blamed from the attacks. “Plausible deniability” is how the presentation put it.
For those who recall one of the most quotable movies of the 80’s, this sounds very, very familiar. Take a look at the opening sequence to the Brian Grazer film, in which an intelligence/military unit discusses the implications of such a weapon:
One of the charms of this movie is that it didn’t take itself all that seriously, turning an intriguing moral question into more or less a farce. However, the weapon itself certainly was taken seriously, as this report proves. Have we developed an essential tool for fighting terrorists, or have we created an assassination weapon that will push an escalation from our larger enemies abroad — and when people disappear, will we get the blame, thanks to the “plausible deniability”?
I can see good arguments for the development of this platform in the current context of our fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a way, it’s not much different than a Predator drone. We target a terrorist or a facility and drop a missile on the location. This system will hit much more quickly, allowing us to react in real time to intelligence on terrorist locations.
However, the potential for it to be used outside of this context exists as well. Right now, we have an executive order banning assassinations, but that has been controversial even before Osama bin Laden became a household name, or Saddam Hussein became the reason for a massive invasion. Could we have saved hundreds of thousands of lives by assassinating Saddam (and his sons) through the use of this weapon? If so, why not use that and its “plausible deniability” than throw 250,000 Americans into the Iraqi desert?
In 1985, these questions were academic, which led to the easy, good/evil paradigm taken by Real Genius, which really is a smarter movie than it first seems. With the weapon a reality, this is no longer academic or easy.