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What Would Be the Military Response?Many people are confident that, sequestered deep within the cryptic machinery of the United States Department of Defense, are plans and personnel ready to deal with the aftermath of discovering extraterrestrials. It’s a pleasant assumption, and one that gains currency from the fact that, a half century ago, both the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency got their collective knickers in a knot about UFOs. Both figured that there was at least a chance that some UFOs were uninvited visitors to our world. However, they worried more about uninvited Soviet aircraft or missiles. The government did, indeed, try to formulate plans.
So it’s true that the military has shown interest in extraterrestrials, in particular, those that might be violating our airspace. But detection of a signal from another planet, around another star, would be a totally different kettle of kippers. To begin with, SETI is a passive listening experiment. The aliens wouldn’t know that we’d picked up their broadcasts any more than the BBC knows that you’ve just tuned in one of their short-wave news reports. Doing so hardly ever provokes BBC announcers to leave their London studios, seek you out, and either destroy your neighborhood or abduct you for experiments that are too personal by half. So it’s hard to imagine that the military would see any security threat in a detection, a result that’s akin to finding a bottled message washed up on the beach.
There’s also the barrier of distance. While we don’t know how far the nearest aliens are, it seems unlikely on statistical grounds that they’d be any closer than a few hundred light-years. That’s an enormous distance, even for the most advanced rockets we can imagine. The aliens, whether we detect them or not, are remote, and we are buffered from their predations (if that’s what they have on their minds) in the same way that oceans buffered Native Americans from being bothered by the Roman Empire.
Of course, you could rightly argue that the first residents of the Americas eventually were bothered, once the Europeans developed ship technology that could cross those insulating seas. Maybe the aliens have the equivalent of warp drive, and can use exotic physics to bridge vast interstellar tracts. Maybe our early television and radar signals have given aggressive aliens a head start and they’re already on their way to trash our world or haul you out of your bedroom. In either case, shouldn’t the military be prepared for actual visitors?
That would be a waste of your taxes. It’s unclear whether humans will ever be able to send themselves to the stars—the technical barriers are formidable. But even optimists would concede that such abilities are at least a few hundred years in our future. Consequently, any extraterrestrials who come here can be safely reckoned to be centuries or more ahead of us, technologically speaking. Any earthly defense against such a society would be like the armies of the American Civil War making plans to battle the U.S. military of today.
Hollywood occasionally tries to circumvent this dead-obvious circumstance by invoking human bravery or cleverness for a Hail Mary defense against invaders from space. But bravery doesn’t help much if your weaponry is outclassed by a few orders of magnitude. And outwitting the extraterrestrials doesn’t make sense. In the popular 1996 film Independence Day, our species turns the tables on some nasty aliens by uploading a virus to their computers. This is absurd to the point of being quaint. Imagine a “computer” of a century or more ago, for example, Charles Babbage’s difference engine, being used to disable a modern laptop. The two machines are of completely incompatible construction. Indeed, about the only way such an early machine could cripple your laptop is if the former was dropped on the latter.
One can argue that the military has devised plenty of contingency plans of which we’re unaware, and a defense against aliens might be one of them. But assuming this to be true is merely paranoia fed by irrational argument.
Reprinted with permission of the National Geographic Society from the book Confessions of An Alien Hunter by Seth Shostak. Available where all books are sold.
Back to Kepler and the Search for Life
This program aired on March 6, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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