Talk of Satellite Defense Raises Fears of Space War
For a U.S. military increasingly dependent on sophisticated satellites for communicating, gathering intelligence and guiding missiles, the possibility that those space-based systems could come under attack has become a growing worry -- and the perceived need to defend them ever more urgent. And that, in turn, is reviving fears in some quarters that humanity's conflicts could soon spread beyond Earth's boundaries.
In a speech last week, a senior Bush administration official warned that other nations, and possibly terrorist groups, are "acquiring capabilities to counter, attack and defeat U.S. space systems." As a result, he said, the United States must increase its ability to protect vital space equipment with new technologies and policies.
Elaborating publicly for the first time since the October release of a new national space policy, Undersecretary of State Robert G. Joseph made clear that the administration would react forcefully to any attempt to interfere with U.S. space technology -- whether used by the military or by businesses ranging from paging services and automated teller machines to radio and television providers.
"No nation, no non-state actor, should be under the illusion that the United States will tolerate a denial of our right to the use of space for peaceful purposes," said Joseph, undersecretary for arms control and international security.
"We reserve the right to defend ourselves against hostile attacks and interference with our space assets. We will, therefore, oppose others who wish to use their military capabilities to impede or deny our access to and use of space. We will seek the best capabilities to protect our space assets by active or passive means."
The administration insists that there is no arms race in space, although the United States is the only nation that opposed a recent United Nations call for talks on keeping weapons out of space.
The statement of American resolve in space came against the backdrop of an intensifying debate between those who criticize any push to put weapons in space and others who say the nation cannot afford to let potential adversaries get the upper hand.
Some Democrats and representatives of other nations are becoming more vocal in their concern about the administration's rhetoric and possible plans regarding space defense. Although the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, signed by the United States, allows only peaceful uses of space, some believe that the United States is moving toward some level of weaponization, especially related to a missile defense system.
Both the new space policy and Joseph's speech "left a lot of room for weaponization of space, which is something that our members have been very concerned about for a while," said Loren Dealy, spokeswoman for the Democratic majority on the House Armed Services Committee. "It also took a very unilateral approach and did not address the issue of multinational agreements to protect satellites that are there."
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) earlier criticized the president's new national space policy, saying, "As we deal with the threats to peace and security from the proliferation of land-based weapons, surely we need to think long and hard before creating potential space-based proliferation threats."
Theresa Hitchens, director of the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information, said she found the tone and substance of Joseph's comments last week puzzling.
"It is somewhat ironic that while he kept saying 'There is no arms race in space' -- which says to me no real threat in space -- his whole pitch was how we have to protect our satellites, including using weapons," she said, citing Joseph's mention of "active means" of defending assets. "The truth of the matter is that the most likely threats are from the ground -- jamming, hacking, blowing up a tracking station -- and anti-satellite weapons and/or space-based weapons do nothing to resolve those threats."
The deputy head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Vitaliy Davydov, was the most blunt. He called the Bush space policy "the first step towards a serious escalation of the military confrontation space," according to the Russian news agency Interfax. He also said that, unlike air and sea weapons, space weapons would be "global and would hang over the entire world." He said, moreover, that Russia has the capability to "also roll out certain military elements into outer space."
Some Capitol Hill staffers on military affairs committees said they think the administration's tough talk on space defense may be setting the stage for a future budget request, especially for funds to start a controversial space-based "test bed" of missile interceptors that could be used in a future missile defense system. One staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of committee rules, said the Pentagon has been hinting that it wants to make such a request for 2008, but it is unclear whether it would be in the budget due out in early February. A Pentagon spokesman said it would be inappropriate to discuss possible budget requests because they are in a "pre-decisional position."
The recent emphasis on space defense coincides with the release of several Government Accountability Office reports criticizing the Pentagon's management of space programs designed to enhance "situational awareness" -- the essential ability to know what is happening to satellites in space and why. In its most recent report, the GAO said last month that "on a broad scale," Defense Department space programs are behind schedule and over budget.
The department "starts more weapon programs than it can afford, creating a competition for funding that encourages low cost estimating, optimistic scheduling, over-promising, suppressing of bad news," the GAO wrote.
Nonetheless, Capitol Hill staffers said there is bipartisan agreement that U.S. space assets are vulnerable and need to be better protected, although there is disagreement about how to do that.
Joseph's comments were especially well received by the group that sponsored his talk, the George C. Marshall Institute, a nonprofit group that specializes in technical aspects of defense and environmental debates. Institute President Jeff Kueter said Joseph highlighted a major and growing U.S. vulnerability that needs to be addressed.
He said China, in particular, is a potential adversary in space and one that appears to be developing its capacities quickly. The publication Defense News reported this fall that the Chinese had succeeded in focusing a ground-based laser on an American satellite in a test of anti-satellite capabilities.
Given the nation's reliance on satellites and space technology as well as the vulnerability of the equipment, Kueter said, "the administration and Congress need to think quite seriously about what we do about countering space threats and protecting space assets. Not enough thought is being given to implementing the space policy, to taking those next steps."
Kueter said his institute hopes the Pentagon will ask Congress to fund the space-based "test bed" for national security purposes, though not necessarily as part of an immediate space-based missile defense system. His views were captured in the title of a Marshall Institute policy statement he wrote in October: "The War in Space Has Already Begun."
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