Global Policy Forum

Reining in Our Weaponry:


By Theresa Hitchens

San Francisco Chronicle
March 15, 2004

At last, Congress may be waking up to one of the most critical strategic blunders the administration of President Bush is preparing to make: the weaponization of outer space. Late last month, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D- Walnut Creek, became one of the first members of Congress to actively challenge the U.S. Air Force on its new strategic plan to turn space into the next battlefield, bristling with orbiting weapons designed to attack satellites, ballistic missiles and even targets on Earth.

Tauscher's pointed questions to Air Force Undersecretary Peter Teets and Air Force Space Command Chief Gen. Lance Lord at a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee confirmed that the service already has started down this dangerous pathway. Since the inauguration of Bush and the appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, the question of space weapons has been lingering in the administration's in-box. There is a high- powered faction within the administration that sees space as the next "high frontier" to be dominated by the U.S. military, and a critical future enabler of the pre-emptive strike strategy articulated by the White House in the wake of Sept. 11.

While the administration has not formally revised the Clinton-era National Space Policy that has long been viewed as eschewing space weapons, the Pentagon nonetheless seems to have given the Air Force the green light to proceed in developing them. Until recently, Air Force leaders have been coy about their long-term intentions for space warfare, focusing instead on the carefully crafted "corporate message" that U.S. space assets -- military, intelligence and commercial -- are vulnerable and need to be protected. Any discussion of offensive space weapons was gingerly deflected, or downplayed with assurances that the service is primarily interested in "reversible and temporary" methods of disrupting enemy use of satellites during future conflicts.

Air Force officials are painfully aware of the political sensitivity of space weapons, and with good reason. Since the dawn of the space age, the American body-politic has never been comfortable with the concept. For example, in a poll earlier this month by, an online news and information source for space professionals and enthusiasts, 66 percent of respondents said Pentagon plans for "space defense" would prompt a dangerous new arms race, whereas only 34 percent believed the plans would "deter space wars." But the service's gloves came off with the Feb. 17 release of the new U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan. The document details a stunning array of exotic weapons to be pursued over the next decade: from an air-launched missile designed to knock satellites out of low orbit, to ground- and space- based lasers for attacking both missiles and satellites, to "hypervelocity rod bundles" (nicknamed Rods from God) designed to burst from space into the atmosphere at high speeds and slam into deeply buried bunkers. Far from being aimed solely at the protection of U.S. space capabilities, such weapons are instead intended for offensive, first-strike missions.

Tauscher is right to be concerned about the wisdom of the Air Force plans. U.S. unilateral weaponization of space is likely to set off a space arms race that in the long-run will undercut, rather than enhance, U.S. national security and global stability. Up to now, most nations of the world -- with the exception of the United States -- have expressed a desire to ban space weapons under an international treaty. The U.S. military's obvious interest in space weapons, however, has led some countries, such as China and India, to consider countering with their own anti-space programs.

A space arms race would have no true winners. Launching and maintaining satellites and spacecraft is exorbitantly expensive. Satellites also are inherently vulnerable; therefore space-based weapons would be high-value, "use them or lose them" assets -- resulting in itchy trigger fingers during a crisis. Indeed, past Pentagon war games have found that use of space weapons often led to rapid escalation of hostilities -- in some cases straight to all-out nuclear war.

Finally, destroying satellites will create debris, already recognized by the international space community as a threat to future safe operations in space. Tauscher has taken a first step toward forcing the "space hawks" in the Bush administration to explain their misguided goal of space dominion. Here's hoping others in Congress will follow her lead.

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