Academic journal article Policy Review

Space Weapons: Refuting the Critics

Academic journal article Policy Review

Space Weapons: Refuting the Critics

Article excerpt

CLASHES OVER THE MILITARY use of space, usually a result of proposals to fund politically controversial weapons programs, have agitated and unsettled the country at various times throughout the space age. But though the world has changed, the intellectual and doctrinal foundations underlying the debate have not.

Since 1967, the Outer Space Treaty has banned the deployment of nuclear weapons in space. But what about other weapons? Although the United States has no plans to do so, it could deploy antisatellite (ASAT) or space-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) interceptors using conventional explosives or high velocity impact. Currently, the Pentagon has technology development programs for the Kinetic Energy ASAT and the Space-Based Laser. In the long term, satellites or space planes could be designed to exploit high-energy laser, electromagnetic pulse, or high-power microwave technologies to degrade targets in space or on earth. President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative explored the feasibility of many such weapons systems. To some, these new-era tools of war hold out special military promise; to others, they represent a security and foreign relations nightmare.

Political excitement over the use of space also ripples through the foreign policy arena. Prompted by U.S. discussions and war games featuring space control and BMD weapons, in February 2000 the Chinese delegation to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament circulated a paper identifying "a present and pressing necessity" to prevent an arms race in outer space. A treaty forestalling the "weaponization" of space, argued the delegation, would have "the greatest bearing on global peace and security."

Moscow agrees with Beijing on this subject. Russian officials regard the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which prohibits nation-wide defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles, as a bulwark against ideas for basing BMD interceptors and other conventional weapons in orbit. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to host an international conference in 2001 to explore ways to prevent the "militarization" of outer space and enhance the current regime of international space law.

Historically, America's vision has been that space should be free for transit and exploitation by all governments and private entities, provided such activities pose no harm to U.S. interests or security. Questions surrounding, first, the enforcement of this vision and, second, the possible use of space to strengthen America's military prowess naturally will arise as the country struggles to resolve a more radical uncertainty: For purposes of national defense, should space be treated like the land, sea, and air? Or is there something different and sacrosanct about this forbidding environment?

Despite marked physical differences among the earthly and orbital environments, in my view there really are no meaningful characteristics that allow us to consider them differently from the point of view of policy and strategy. The ability to leverage outer space will continue to grow in importance for modern military forces and may make possible even more effective forms of combat.

Yet there are those who reach the opposite conclusion concerning the potential impact of space weapons on national security and international peace. They have argued their case in learned journals, the popular press, and before congressional committees -- in many cases, repeating arguments first made decades ago. It is past time for a thorough review of the case for halting the progress of weapons at the edge of earth's atmosphere.

Stability then and now

THE CASE FOR TREATING space as a sanctuary is grounded in two central concerns. The first is that the introduction of space weapons would radically destabilize security relationships. The second is that arming the heavens would undermine U.S. foreign policy by unnecessarily torturing relationships with allies (and potential warfighting partners) -- and would cause anti-American coalitions to form and wage political and economic warfare against U. …

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