Within the next few weeks, President Bush is expected to release his administration's
new national space policy. The most crucial aspect of the plan will be whether
it endorses placing weapons in space.
There have been a series of reports since 2001 that essentially advocate deploying
space weapons. The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space
Management and Organization, initially chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, argued that
the United States must take steps to avoid a "space Pearl Harbor."
The Rumsfeld report said there is no current bar to "placing or using
weapons in space, applying force from space to Earth, or conducting military
operations in and through space."
Not so coincidentally, seven of the 13 members of the Rumsfeld space commission
had ties to aerospace companies that could stand to gain from the launching
of a major space weapons program.
But just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it. For years
space has served as a sanctuary where nations cooperate rather than confront
one another. Satellites save lives and support our economy by predicting the
weather, helping first responders provide emergency assistance, facilitating
the delivery of humanitarian aid in cases of natural disaster and by making
cell phones, pagers and modern financial transactions possible.
A weapons-free space environment also allows the United States to maintain
its military superiority by supporting state-of-the-art reconnaissance, communications
and targeting capabilities.
Placing weapons in space that can shoot down another nation's satellites will
encourage them to respond in kind, putting U.S. satellites at risk.
Despite the benefits of a relatively benign space environment, there are voices
within the Pentagon and military bureaucracies who argue that putting weapons
in space is inevitable. In a U.S. Air Force document on "counterspace operations,"
Peter B. Teets, then assistant secretary of the Air Force -- and formerly COO
of Lockheed Martin, a major military and space contractor -- argued that "controlling
the high ground of space ... will require us to think about denying the high
ground to our adversaries. We are paving the path to 21st century warfare now."
Research has already begun on a number of space weapons, including the XSS-10
and XSS-11 Experimental Spacecraft Systems, microsatellites that can surround
other satellites and photograph, jam or collide with them; the Near Field Infrared
Experiment, a program aimed at testing the ability to destroy targets in orbit;
and the Microsatellite Propulsion Experiment, which plans to launch maneuverable
kill vehicles that are perfect for taking out satellites. There are also plans
afoot to develop Hypervelocity Rod Bundles, frequently called "Rods from
God," designed to drop from space and hit targets on Earth.
In addition to the threats to U.S. security and our economy from sparking an
arms race in space, the whole process would be extremely costly. According to
the Union of Concerned Scientists, launching an adequate number of Space-Based
Interceptors to achieve total global coverage in a missile defense role could
cost up to $60 billion over a decade's time. Space-Based Interceptors can also
be adapted to work as anti-satellite weapons, although the numbers needed to
reach an initial capability would be much smaller. And a Council on Foreign
Relations study group estimates that placing just 40 rods in space for the "Rods
from God" program would cost more than $8 billion.
Given all the other space weapons projects on the drawing board, a concerted
effort to weaponize space could eventually exceed the $100 billion-plus already
spent on the missile defense program, which has been plagued by delays and technical
difficulties from its inception. Witness the fact that in the last two major
missile defense tests, the interceptor missile did not even make it out of its
silo. Launching and maintaining hundreds or thousands of weapons in the harsh
environment of space would pose its own technical obstacles, some of which may
not be readily overcome.
The better way to go would be to act now to establish some rules of the road
for space-faring nations. The Henry L. Stimson Center has developed a model
code of conduct for space that includes no flight-testing or deployment of space
weapons, minimizing space debris that can destroy satellites and cooperating
on space traffic management. The time to act on these ideas is now, while the
United States still maintains unparalleled dominance in space.