I recently made a major life decision: I left my job. And after the US presidential election last month, I feel that my decision was precisely correct. I want to explain my motivation, because I believe that there are important policy issues in play that many people do not think about. I also believe it’s especially important to raise these issues among scientists and engineers.
First of all, everything in this post reflects my personal opinion.
I used to work at an engineering company that does most of its work as a military contractor. My discipline is spacecraft engineering, and this company occasionally offered work on space systems. It was that spacecraft work that attracted me to the company in the first place. I got to design algorithms for a constellation of NASA hurricane-monitoring satellites, and I got to help out with some experimental satellite programs. However, for the several years I worked there I struggled with the fact that space work was sort of a side project for this company. The main revenue stream came from building weapons. The kind of weapons nobody in their right mind should ever consider using.
I recall hearing many ways to rationalize participation in weapons projects: we are defending our nation; if we don’t build these, someone else will; this is just an interesting engineering problem we’re solving regardless of the applications. I could never make any of the rationalizations work for me. That last one, in particular, I found fundamentally disturbing. If we, as engineers, don’t consider the possible applications and implications of our work, then I think we lack the moral standing to do that work – even if our work was not used as we intended. If our projects kill, then we have blood on our hands. I did not want that to happen to me.
There was a particular class of weapon that inspired an existential dread in me. (Fortunately, though I learned about these systems, I never had to work on one. What I know of them comes from the media, as exemplified by the links below.) It’s called a hypersonic weapon, or sometimes a “prompt global strike” weapon. These are weapons designed specifically to travel as fast as a ballistic missile, though they could carry non-nuclear warheads. The problem with these weapons is that their purpose is to penetrate air defenses like that possessed by only a few specific (and often nuclear-armed) nations – Russia and China, for instance. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine that American development of hypersonic weapons would make such nations think that they are our intended target! Furthermore, their design is to move quickly, maneuver erratically, or otherwise act in a manner that could be confusing to opposing radar operators. Russian missile-warning satellites have a historical track record of mistaking things like scientific sounding rockets or sunlight glinting off clouds for an American nuclear missile attack – against which Russian doctrine dictates a nuclear response. So do we really want to confuse those early-warning systems further? Even if the American weapons are non-nuclear, firing one in the vicinity of Chinese or Russian air defense creates an unacceptably high probability of accidental nuclear war. Russian officials may even have suggested that they would respond to a hypersonic weapon with nukes, on purpose.
The really crazy thing is that former President George W. Bush agreed with me and discontinued an experimental hypersonic vehicle program for exactly the reason I outlined: unacceptable risk of accidentally causing nuclear war. What the US is developing now are actually President Obama’s weapons. Obama thought that his Defense Department would rely on American technological superiority to deter any potential adversary. Instead of our weapons having the most powerful blasts, they would have other fear-inducing qualities. They would strike the quickest and be able to penetrate any defense. In addition, with non-nuclear warheads, these weapons are not limited by nuclear arms treaties and might even be useful to generals fighting a smaller-scale conflict like the one against ISIS. Ironically, though, these non-nuclear weapons could very well set off a nuclear counterattack anyway! Worse, Obama touched off a volatile hypersonic arms race among the biggest military powers of the world. Now several nations are rapidly developing the ability to accidentally trigger a global nuclear holocaust by setting off the US’s, Russia’s, or China’s Cold War-era automated response systems.
Though I didn’t work on those weapons, my former company had an intent focus on military programs. I feared that it was only a matter of time before they ran out of civilian spacecraft work and assigned me to something nefarious. Hypersonic weapons are only one terrifying example. Missiles, drones, cyberweapons – work on all these things and more is common in engineering companies. Given the Pentagon’s push for “disruptive innovation” – really, just think about how scary that phrase is in connection with the military! – I figured the prospects for a guy who wants rockets only to explore space were likely to get worse. Ultimately, I decided that it was up to me to vote with my feet, uphold my moral convictions, and deprive both my former company and the military of my engineering talent. So I got a new job, at a facility that doesn’t do any weaponry. I’ll be working on telecommunications satellites, and weather satellites, and imaging satellites, and space probes. That was how I cleared my conscience. But to do so, I had to move across the country to find an aerospace industry facility that didn’t build weapons. Others with the same moral dilemma may not be so flexible.
Now enter President-elect Donald J. Trump. In a primary interview, he suggested the use of nuclear weapons, in Europe, as a means to fight ISIS. He has reiterated many times how important he thinks it is to be “unpredictable” with his nuclear policy. He wants to abolish the deal that pushed Iran from being months away from developing a nuclear bomb to a decade away. He has publicly stated that the US should pull back from defense commitments in Europe and Asia. He has suggested that he would be okay if Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia all became nuclear powers. He has offhandedly proposed bombing various American enemies, large and small. And he wants to dramatically increase US military spending. With merely a phone call as president-elect, Trump caused an international incident. All this is likely the product of willful ignorance: He is refusing security briefings, and he doesn’t believe the information presented in those he does attend.
A Trump world is a world with more nuclear-armed powers and more instability. I do not have confidence in his ability to refrain from policies that make nukes more risky, or even from ordering a nuclear attack himself. Furthermore, I have little doubt that, given the option to launch a “non-nuclear” hypersonic weapon at some target that peeved him, Trump would pull the trigger. An all-too-possible result: global nuclear war and the end of human life as we know it.
If that happens it will be Trump’s fault, and not mine. I left the weapon-mongering subfield of engineering, and so I will not help him do these things. Not even in a small way. My decision feels secure. But, thanks to his election, the safety of the world isn’t.
I think we all learned something from this election: the price of silence. The media failed to challenge Trump on his most egregious or insensitive claims. Republican party statesmen failed to hold their own convictions as his fortunes rose, and instead held their tongues over each new outrage. Ordinary Americans failed to discuss the issues with their family and friends outside of Facebook’s echo chamber. And then, on Election Day, voter turnout was historically low. We’re seeing repercussions for bigotry and harassment already, and Trump’s decision to pack his cabinet with generals – violating the American principle of civilian leadership of the military that goes all the way back to George Washington – makes me extremely skeptical about future military strategy and weapons development. That’s why I wanted to to write this piece: We, as Americans, all need to think hard about how our tax money is going to be spent on the military, and whether that spending makes us safer or not, regardless of the jobs it secures for our communities. If the military money doesn’t make us safer, or especially if it makes us less safe, then perhaps we can find other ways to sustain jobs with federal funding: say, basic research and infrastructure investment. We need to keep a sharp eye on our federal policies and keep in close touch with our representatives in Congress.
Trump is a man who tolerates no disagreement, and doesn’t hesitate to unleash a horde of GamerGate-style trolls to harass and threaten people who question him. Furthermore, the congress is going to be full of spineless, unprincipled people like Paul Ryan, who condemned Trump’s moral failings…short of withdrawing their endorsement of this man who could keep them in power. They will not be an effective check on Trump. So one thing I am doing in response to Trump’s election is finding ways to live my policies, and letting my behavior in the market speak to American policymakers and companies for me. We signed up with our home energy provider to receive 100% renewable energy. We’re donating to the ACLU, and SPLC, and Brady Campaign, and Planned Parenthood, and Natural Resources Defense Council. We’re getting newspaper subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post. We’re buying into programs that offset the heavy carbon emissions of airplane flights. We’re putting a priority on getting fuel-efficient cars. When we do buy fuel, we’re going to try to buy from European companies like Shell that have tied their executives’ bonuses to carbon-reducing efforts (and to avoid ExxonMobil, which waged a decades-long disinformation campaign after its own research scientists became aware of the occurrence and causes of global warming).
And, in that same vein, I left my job at a weapons manufacturing subcontractor.
There is power in voting with one’s wallet and one’s feet. In particular, I think engineers need to consider carefully the applications and implications of the work we do. Especially any engineers given the choice of contributing to the most devastating weapons we can imagine, or weapons that do the most damage against civilians, or devices that are overly provocative to other nations. If our work falls into the wrong hands – say, an “unpredictable” American president who won’t rule out weapons of mass destruction and has advocated targeting civilians – then we share in the responsibility for the consequences. I would like to encourage other engineers out there to devote some thought to how they can also find ways to use their skills to make our world a better place.
Because, in Trump’s new world, we as individuals are going to need to spend a lot of effort to make things better. Hopefully, there will be enough of us to counteract him.