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A Dangerous Step toward Space Warfare

Experts say the new U.S. National Space Policy will push the world closer to a space arms race.
October 27, 2006

The release of the U.S. National Space Policy (NSP) on October 6 has worried many experts, who say the policy marks a strategic shift toward a more military-oriented, unilateral approach to space for the United States. They fear that the policy, if followed, could begin an arms race leading to catastrophic space warfare.

The Bush administration’s announcement of a more unilateral approach to space may put American satellites orbiting Earth (such as the one in this image) in grave danger should a space arms race begin. (Credit: Matei)

The NSP reads, in part, “The United States considers space capabilities… vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”

The policy clearly conveys that the United States considers itself accountable to no one for its military actions in space, says Michael Krepon, cofounder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank that promotes international security. It also rejects nonmilitary initiatives that include some form of arms control, even if such initiatives would improve the safety and security of U.S. satellites.

This is not the first time the United States has asserted what it terms an “unhindered” right to act in space. The 1996 NSP, drafted by the Clinton administration, had the same central theme. The difference, according to Theresa Hitchens, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, is that the new policy not only dismisses the rights of other space-faring powers but is actively hostile to the concept of collective security. It signals that the United States no longer regards space as a cooperative environment, she says, undercutting 40 years of tradition that has kept competition and conflict in space at a minimum.

A paradox of the policy, experts say, is that it leaves U.S. satellites, which are indispensable to the nation’s communications and security, vulnerable to attack and destruction by other nations. “Currently, the American military makes enormous use of space to help empower our forces on the ground at sea and in the air,” says John Arquilla, a military expert and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. “If we lose those satellites, it would simply level the playing field and take away the space element that gives American forces an advantage.”

In September,, a reliable source of military news, reported that China had fired high-powered lasers at U.S. spy satellites flying over its territory. What the Chinese military’s intentions were, and what effect the lasers had, is not known. Publicly, U.S. officials appeared unalarmed. But the idea that China may be testing, or is about to be begin testing, offensive space technologies may have been one factor in shaping the unilateralist language of the NSP.

“The simple problem is that it is a lot easier to knock things down from space than it is to protect them up there,” Arquilla says. “Frankly, the kinds of weapons that can be used, like a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse, can be very, very destructive and cripple satellites.”

The loss of satellites is not the only troubling possibility. The destruction of satellites creates orbital debris fields that can render regions of near space unusable. Some of those regions, like low Earth orbit, are where most manned space flights and space station missions have been conducted. The new NSP calls on government and nongovernment operations to “seek to minimize the creation” of such fields.

If satellites became targets, the only way for the United States to protect them would be to put defensive systems in space. But “weaponizing” space could lead other nations to follow suit, Krepon says.

The topic of weaponizing space is a sensitive one, and Arquilla, who is privy to much classified military information, would not comment on whether the U.S. plans to launch weapons into orbit. But he notes that many defensive methods don’t require offensive capabilities–in particular, a proposed system called the Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space (ANGELS), which will allow the United States to move its satellites to safer locations.

The new space policy does more than just re-assert America’s freedom of action in space. It also calls on NASA and other agencies to gear up for technological innovation and “human and robotic space exploration programs.”

“The policy is in its early stages, and at this point we are continuing to go forward with the programs currently in operation, such as the Mars Rovers and several of the long-term missions,” says Robert Mirelson, a senior NASA official. “There are no real big 180-degree changes under the national space policy as it pertains to us, [and] the time line remains the same.”

As part of that time line, which runs until 2030, NASA plans to complete the International Space Station and shuttle program by 2010 and to develop a new crew exploration vehicle (CEV) for a return to the moon. The CEV, named Orion, is part of the new Constellation Program, which is scheduled to be ready for testing in 2008. If all works well, Constellation will launch in 2014.

“We depend on Congress for our budget, and that affects programs,” says Mirelson. “Until you see that in black and white, you can’t talk specifics across the board. I mean, nobody is expecting any radical reductions and certainly not any radical expansions for [fiscal year] 2007.”

Despite experts’ concerns about the new NSP, most are also hopeful that the United States will collaborate and cooperate with other space-faring nations if technology, budgets, and policies permit. These experts hope that the use of space, as the NSP states, will continue to “enhance security, protect lives and the environment, speed information flow, serve as an engine for economic growth, and revolutionize the way people view their place in the world and the cosmos”–not just for the United States but all “hosts of nations, consortia, businesses, and entrepreneurs” that use space.

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