Rushing to Weaponize the Final Frontier

Article excerpt

The military advantages of the United States being the first country to place weapons in space could be easily out-- weighed by the long-- term political and security costs.

For nearly 40 years, there has been a gentlemen's agreement among the world's space-faring nations to refrain from putting weapons in space. This unspoken pact to protect space for "peaceful uses" has penetrated the international psyche so deeply that most countries, including the two Cold War rivals, have also refrained from developing weapons that could shoot down satellites from the ground, air, or sea.

That may well be about to change.

The United States, the number one space power, is on the verge of a set of decisions that could make it the first to place weapons in orbit. This would be a momentous move, holding the potential for a phase shift in global politics and international relations. It could well go down as one of the major historical events of the 21st century.

It is unclear, however, whether those in the military and the administration of President George W. Bush who are pushing for aggressive U.S. moves to develop and field anti-satellite and spaced-based weaponry have clearly and completely explored the far-reaching political, commercial, and national security ramifications such a move could have.

In the absence of such an in-depth, detailed, and public review-that is, including inputs from Congress, academia, and industry, and involving unclassified as well as classified assessments-of the enormous impact of creating a new battlefield in space, it would be a serious mistake for President Bush to allow the Pentagon's space-warfare proponents to continue their march to orbit. There is too much at stake, for both the United States and the rest of the world.

A New Space Policy?

Although there has been a good deal of internal debate within the military, particularly the Air Force, about the issue of space-based weaponry, overall national security policy regarding space has changed little over the past several decades.

The National Space Policy document released by the White House in September 1996 provides the current national guidance. That document, and its interpretation by the Clinton administration, is consistent with U.S. policy ever since the original space race of the late 1950s and 1960s: continue the restraint against putting weapons in orbit, but allow the military to explore technologies and capabilities as both a deterrent and a hedge against potential developments by hostile countries.

This U.S. policy, although encouraging research and development, has amounted to a de facto prohibition on the deployment of space-based weapons. In fact, despite several eras of experimentation, both the United States and Russia have also rejected the deployment of ground-, sea-, and air-based anti-satellite weapons (ASATs). In other words, weaponization of space-whether through the introduction of orbiting weapons or through direct targeting of satellites-- has been and continues to be taboo.

This restraint has occurred despite the fact that there are no international or bilateral treaties banning weapons in space, although there are several treaties limiting some space-based military activities. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty proscribes putting weapons of mass destruction into space or on the moon or other celestial bodies. The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty also prohibited nuclear explosions in space. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the United States and Soviet Union forbids development, testing, or deployment of space-based missile defense systems and also forbids "tampering" with the other side's "national technical means" (i.e., spy satellites).

None of these treaties outright ban space-based weapons or even ASATs aimed at satellites other than spy satellites. In fact, the U.S. government has never been willing to formally pledge a ban on weapons in space, much less on ASATs. …