The Final Frontier: Washington Prepares for Arms Race in Space

This past fall humanity celebrated the golden anniversary of the Space Age, as measured by the launch into orbit by the Soviet Union of the first Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik I, on October 1 1957. Today that stunning technical achievement has become routine. More than 4,500 satellites have been launched into orbit and more than 850 of them still operate. Private companies now launch satellites, as do a large numbers of countries. People around the world now depend on satellites for the many services they provide, including information on the weather and climate, telecommunications, business and finance, and navigation. Less well known is the attempt to put weapons in space, arrayed against a long history by nations to prevent that weaponization.

For people in the U.S. their most likely exposure to the possibility of aggression in space was a Chinese test, widely reported in U.S. mainstream media, of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. In January 2007, China destroyed one of its defunct weather satellites. That test is troubling because it represents a first step for China down a dangerous road.

The test also sharply increases the amount of dangerous space debris — pieces of inactive equipment, fragments of broken up satellites and rocket bodies, and other bits of unused "junk"- in a portion of the Earth’s atmosphere shared by many satellites. Since space objects travel through orbits at very high speed, a collision with even a small piece of debris can damage or destroy a satellite.

But the coverage of the test by the mainstream media in the U.S. is even more troubling. That coverage, which fails to mention U.S. weaponization at all, leaves the clear impression that China is alone in pursuing a strategy of dominating space. The reality is dramatically different.

Until he resigned to become George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld had chaired the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. That group, which came to be known as the Rumsfeld Commission, claimed that "rogue states" posed such a threat and warned in a report issued in 2001 of a "Space Pearl Harbor." Ostensibly to prevent such an attack, the report warned that "in the coming period the U.S. will conduct operations to, from, in, and through space in support of its national interests both on Earth and in space," making response possible "to events anywhere in the world." The report recommended that the Pentagon’s U.S. Space Command, whose motto is "Master of Space," become a Space Corps modeled after the Marine Corps and then, possibly, a separate Space Department equal to the army, navy, and air force.

The Rumsfeld report followed a series of U.S. military reports laying out plans for space weapons. Vision for 2020, produced for the U.S. Space Command website, pictures space-based laser weapons zapping targets on Earth. Its text begins with a crawl that reads "U.S. Space Command – dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict."          

At about the same time that Vision for 2020 appeared in 1996, General Joseph Ashy, then commander in chief of the Space Command, told aerospace publication Aviation Week & Space Technology, "Some people don’t want to hear this and it sure isn’t in vogue, but — absolutely — we’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space, and we’re going to fight into space." He added, "That’s why the U.S. has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms." It was China’s test of the latter that was so sharply condemned by the U.S. media.

Shortly after the space age began the international community recognized that space needs governing laws and principles in order to sustain its peaceful use. To that end, on October 10, 1967, almost exactly a decade after the Sputnik I launch, the Outer Space Treaty went into effect. Since then nearly 100 countries have ratified it, including all of the current space-faring nations.

The Outer Space Treaty bans the stationing of weapons in space and on celestial objects and lays out the principles that should guide the use of space. Specifically, the exploration and use of space, including the moon and other bodies, should be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and should be the province of all mankind.

A lot has changed in the 40 years since the treaty’s ratification. There are new space technologies, many more space-faring nations, and satellites have become crucial to economic and civil life. Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, recently reported on the "repeated efforts led by China, Russia, and U.S. ally Canada" to have the 1967 treaty appropriately broadened. The U.S. has been "opposing this initiative all but alone at the UN in vote after vote." The latest illustration just occurred. In early February, Russia and China submitted a draft treaty at the UN calling for the prevention of weapons in space and the threat or use of force there. The White House rejected the measure, saying that the U.S. will reject any attempt to "prohibit or limit access to or use of space."  

Grossman devotes a whole chapter to this opposition in his book Weapons in Space. To cite an example, in 1999 some 160 nations voted for the resolution titled "Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space." Only two nations refused to support the resolution: the U.S. and Israel abstained. A year later the resolution came again before the UN General Assembly, and 163 nations voted in favor. Again the U.S. and Israel abstained, joined this time by Micronesia, a cluster of Pacific Islands that depends on U.S. aid.

In August of 2006 the White House adopted a new National Space Policy that took a still more aggressive U.S. position on space warfare, announcing that the U.S. will "develop and deploy space capabilities that sustain U.S. advantage." This came during the week of demonstrations and talks that comprise the annually held Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. There was little reporting on the bellicose new National Space Policy and even less on the global movement to prevent the weaponization of space.

"Why do the mainstream media not report on a growing international movement to keep space for peace?" asks Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network. Gagnon suggests an answer: the mainstream media are under the control of the very corporations that will benefit, directly or indirectly, from an arms race in space. He says such a race would be "the largest industrial project in the history of the planet." In order to create acceptance among the public, the media owned by the corporations that will benefit "must manage the news around this issue so that the American people remain compliant."

Weapons in space picture from