14 October 2009
Weapons In Space?
By Karl Grossman
Presented in Oslo, Norway
The good news is that the new U.S. president,
Barack Obama is limiting U.S. space warfare plans.
Although what he’s doing, I’ll note, is not to the
satisfaction of all peace activists.
Moments after Obama was sworn in, the White House website displayed this policy statement: “The Obama-Biden administration will restore American leadership on space issues seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.”
This was widely seen as meaning an end to U.S. efforts to deploy weapons in space. As Reuters reported: “President Barack Obama’s pledge to seek a worldwide ban on weapons in space marks a dramatic shift in U.S. policy.”
However, the statement was soon removed from the White House website and reported to have “originated from an Obama campaign white paper and was transferred verbatim to the White House website by a junior staffer without input from any of the governmental bodies that manage national policy.”
This spring the Obama administration broke sharply with previous U.S. administrations—including the also-Democratic Clinton administration—and at the UN’s Conference on Disarmament in Geneva supported discussion on a treaty for what is acronymed PAROS, Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. For years, Russia, China, and America’s neighbor Canada—supported by nearly all the nations at the conference—have been seeking a treaty to prohibit the weaponization of space. The U.S. had blocked action on PAROS.
The bad news, meanwhile: what would happen if, in three years, the Obama administration is no more. And despite his landslide victory last year, that could happen; the Obama administration is under intense, continual assault from the U.S. right-wing.
And although it’s very early, some of the names being mentioned as possible challengers to Obama include Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, yes, Sarah Palin, and Rudolph Giuliani. If any of them would win, there’d be a complete reversal in current U.S. national policies.
We could expect a return to plans percolating in the U.S. for decades—indeed, even before Ronald Reagan and the Star Wars scheme
he announced in 1983—for the U.S. to seize the “ultimate high ground,” base weapons in space and from space try to control the planet below.
The result of this would be a cosmic and earthly mess. The U.S. would be met in kind. Russia would be up there. China would be up there. Other nations would follow. There would be no advantage for anyone. The heavens will have been turned into a war zone. A shooting war involving space weaponry would produce huge amounts of debris—some of it nuclear. U.S. space weapons schemes have been predicated on lasers, particle beams and hypervelocity gun energized by orbiting nuclear power systems. Some of the junk would fall to Earth. Some would remain in space for millennia, blanketing this planet in a thick belt of debris that would make it impossible for humanity to leave Earth and explore space.
I’ve written about all this in detail in my books Weapons In Space and The Wrong Stuff and in television documentaries which I’ve also hosted, The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens and Star Wars Returns, which will be screened later this evening.
The U.S. plans have been laid out in documents such as the U.S. Space Command’s Vision For 2020 report which, on its cover, features a laser weapon shooting its beam down from space zapping a target below. The report begins, in wording laid out as in the start of the Star Wars movies: “US Space Command—dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.” It compares the U.S. effort to control space and the Earth below to how centuries ago “nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests,” how the great empires of Europe ruled the waves and thus the world.
The U.S. Space Command’s Long Range Plan proclaims: “Space power in the 2lst Century looks similar to previous military revolutions, such as aircraft-carrier warfare and Blitzkrieg.” It describes space as “a center of gravity” for the U.S. Department of Defense “and the nation.”
It says: “It is unlikely that the United States will face a global military peer competitor through 2020….Widespread communications will highlight disparities in resources and quality of life—contributing to unrest in developing countries….The gap between ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ nations will widen—creating regional unrest….The United States will remain the only nation able to protect power globally….One of the long acknowledged…advantages of space-based platforms is no restriction or country clearances to overfly a nation from space.” It goes on to detail plans for “Control of Space,” “Full Spectrum Dominance,” “Global Engagement.”
As General Joseph Ashy, then commander-in-chief of the U.S. Space Command, explained about “space control” and “space force application”—“We’ll expand into these two missions because they will become increasingly important. We will engage terrestrial targets someday—ships, airplanes, land targets—from space. We will engage targets in space, from space…It’s politically sensitive, but it’s going to happen…Some people don’t want to hear this, and it sure isn’t in vogue, but—absolutely—we’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space….That’s why the U.S. has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms.”
“Space,” says Guardians of the High Frontier, a publication of the Air Force Space Command, “is the ultimate ‘high ground,’” and the Command is committed to “the control and exploitation of space.”
“Master of Space” still is the motto of the 50th Space Wing of the Air Force Space Command—emblazoned over the entrance to its headquarters in Colorado. “Master of Space.”
As the book The Future of War: Power, Technology & American World Dominance in the 2lst Century, by “defense experts” George and Meredith Friedman, concluded: “Just as by the year 1500 it was apparent that the European experience of power would be its domination of the global seas, it does not take much to see that the American experience of power will rest on the domination of space. Just as Europe expanded war and its power to the global oceans, the United States is expanding war and its power into space and to the planets. Just as Europe shaped the world for a half a millennium” by dominating the oceans with fleets of warships, “so too the United States will shape the world for at least that length of time.”
George Friedman, who now runs the website Stratfor Global Intelligence, insisted that the U.S. could dominate the Earth for centuries ahead because of its technological prowess. He said other nations—including Russia and China—are just “passing blips…to compete with the U.S.”
I’ve been to Russia—indeed I was in St. Petersburg over the past weekend. I’ve been to China. They are no passing technological “blips.”
As noted, U.S. plans have involved using nuclear power to provide the energy for weapons in space. New World Vistas: Air And Space Power For The 2lst Century, a U.S. Air Force board report, speaks of “new technologies” that “will allow the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness to be used to deliver energy and mass as force projection in tactical and strategic conflict…These advances will enable lasers with reasonable mass and cost to effect very many kills.” But, it states, “power limitations impose restrictions” on such-based weapons systems making them “relatively unfeasible….A natural technology to enable high power is nuclear power in space.”
It goes on: “Setting the emotional issues of nuclear power aside, this technology offers a viable alternative for large amounts of power in space.”
Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years, a book “commissioned by the U.S. Congress,” declares that nuclear reactors “remain the only known long-lived, compact source able to supply military space forces with electric power between about 10 kilowatts and multimegawatts. Cores no bigger than basketballs are able to produce about 100 kw, enough for `housekeeping’ aboard space stations and at lunar outposts. Larger versions could meet multimegawatt needs of space-based lasers…particle beams” and so on.
Turning space into a battleground was heavily promoted by the last U.S. administration, that of George W. Bush. As he took office, a commissioned chaired by his defense secretary-to-be, Donald Rumsfeld, issued a report declaring that “in the coming period the U.S. will conduct operations to, from, in and through space to support its national interests.”
The Bush administration withdrew the U.S. from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
It revised the National Space Policy to state: "Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power. United States national security is critically dependent upon space capabilities, and this dependence will grow." So the United States will "develop and deploy space capabilities that sustain U.S. advantage." And "will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space."
Further, the Bush policy explicitly authorized the use of nuclear power overhead to "enhance…operational capabilities... The use of space nuclear power systems shall be consistent with U.S. national and homeland security and foreign policy interests."
Wow, what my country has been up to—and could be fully back at!
What about the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the “basic framework on international space law”—as notes the UN in describing the landmark treaty now ratified by 98 nations and signed by another 27? The U.S., the United Kingdom and former Soviet Union were its initiators.
What about the treaty’s declaration that space shall be used “for peaceful purposes…The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries?”
What about the treaty’s provision that nations shall not “place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction?”
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been speaking about, as New World Vistas states, “in the next two decades…the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness.”
Or as The New York Time, in a front-page article, in reporting how the US Air Force was "seeking President Bush's approval” to move “the United States closer to fielding offensive and defense space weapons,” told of one “Air Force space program, nicknamed Rods from God, [that] aims to hurl cylinders of tungsten, titanium or uranium from the edge of space to destroy targets on the ground striking at speeds of about 7,200 miles an hour with the force of a small nuclear weapon."
As to the origin of much of U.S. space military strategy, it occurs after World War II with the U.S. having grabbed as many German rocket scientists as it could, bringing them to America. Among them were Wernher Von Braun and his fellow scientists involved in the V-2 program. They built, at the Redstone Army Arsenal in Alabama, a version of their V-2 which was called the Redstone. It was the first U.S. intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of carrying atomic weapons.
And there was former Major General Walter Dornberger who had been in charge of the entire Nazi rocket program, and “in 1947, as a consultant to the U.S. Air Force and advisor to the Department of Defense,” wrote “a planning paper for his new employers,” notes Professor Jack Manno in his book Arming the Heavens: The Hidden Military Agenda for Space. It “projected,” relates Manno, “a system of hundreds of nuclear-armed satellites all orbiting at different altitudes and angles, each capable of reentering the atmosphere on command from Earth to proceed to its target. The Air Force began early work on Dornberger’s idea under the acronym NABS (Nuclear Armed Bombardment Satellites). As a variation on NABS, Dornberger also proposed an antiballistic-missile system in space in the form of hundreds of satellites, each armed with many small missiles…This concept was also taken under study by the Air Force in the 1950s. Labeled BAMBI (Ballistic Missile Boost Intercept), it was an idea that would reappear in the space-war dreams of the Reagan administration.”
Well, now we have possibly change with the Obama administration. Where do we stand?
On the weaponization of space, during his campaign for the presidency and briefly in that White House website statement, Obama took a position against weapons in space. What will the future hold?
Expected soon is issuance of a new national space policy. Obama in May issued a Presidential Study Directive ordering the director of space policy for the White House National Security Council along with a slew of U.S. offices and agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and U.S. intelligence agencies, to conduct a full review of the national space policy of the Bush administration. It is to include the Bush policy on weapons in space. We’ll see soon whether Obama’s campaign promises and that short-lived White House website statement hold.
For what it’s worth, Christopher Ford, director of the conservative Hudson Institute’s Center for Technology and Global Security, recently wrote: “A ‘space weapons ban’ may be an incoherent and perhaps dangerous idea, but it is one whose time the new administration seems to think has come.”
On the Obama administration’s move at the UN’s 65-nation Conference on Disarmament in May agreeing to discuss a treaty on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, Theresa Hitchens, director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research and formerly vice president of the strongly anti-Star Wars Center for Defense Information, reported that “the mood among CD delegates” because of the U.S. change-of-stance was “more upbeat than ever regarding prospects for real movement…The…agreement on a program of work was greeted with the sound of champagne corks being popped in the Palais des Nations and across much of Geneva.”
But, she says, although the “stalemate” has been “broken out of…there is no guarantee of real movement.”
This, she says, is linked, in part, to the issue of anti-satellite weapons—acronymed ASATs—based on Earth, on ships or land, and able to shoot down shoot down satellites in space. The attempt at the Conference on Disarmament in recent years has been to couple a ban on space weapons with limits on ASATs. Indeed, the formal name of the proposed PAROS treaty is: “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects.”
Says Hitchens: a “critical trade off” will need to be made involving “some sort of agreement to stop destructive ASAT proliferation.”
You might remember the shoot-down last year by the use, using what it calls a Standard Missile-3, acronymed SM-3, of a supposedly malfunctioning spy satellite. The SM-3 was fired from a U.S. warship west of the Hawaiian and it shattered the satellite.
The SM-3 is increasingly being considered by the U.S. as a major component of its missile defense program—but, demonstrably, it has anti-satellite capability.
We should also consider the shoot-down the year before by China of one of its old satellites, a test of an anti-satellite missile by China. Some have said this was a warning by China of the sort of thing the future could bring if the U.S. did not agree to a treaty prevent the deployment of weapons in space.
Hitchens writes: “Despite the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign expressed interest in a treaty to prevent space weaponization, it is too early to judge whether the new administration will be interested enough in that goal to counter strong forces in the United States supporting missile defense and former U.S. policy of ‘freedom of action’ for future offensive space operations.”
A significant majority of U.S. citizens, meanwhile, opposes the deployment of weapons in space. A poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org poll last year involving 1,247 Americans found that 78 percent said that as long as no other country puts weapons in space, the U.S. should not. Of 1,601 Russians polled, 66 percent said the same thing about their country.
As to missile defense, last month Obama announced the U.S. was abandoning the Bush administration’s plans to set up missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Some saw this as a concession to Russia aimed at providing an incentive for Russia to work with the U.S. in preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons.
Obama has been hotly attacked for his action. His Republican opponent from last year, Senator John McCain, called it “seriously misguided.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was “short-sighted and harmful to our long-term security interests.”
In announcing the abandonment, Obama said: “I’m confident…we have strengthened America’s national security.”
Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, in giving what he terms “The Other Story” on the Poland-Czech Republic move, points to how U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates earlier concluded that “the original plan” for missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic was no longer the best military “architecture” for the current “threat” from Iran. And the Pentagon, stresses Gagnon, has been seeking an expansion of having missile defense interceptors—the SM-3, not too incidentally—placed aboard Navy Aegis destroyers and their placement as well in northern and southern Europe.
So, says Gagnon, “I see this as an adjustment in strategy…Obama can appear to be stepping back from an immediate confrontation with Russia but, in fact, he is following the lead of the Pentagon which for some time has been saying that it must move to expand the more promising Navy Aegis-based missile defense system.”
Indeed, as Lt. General Patrick Reilly declared: “We’re not scrapping missile defense. Rather, we are strengthening it and delivering more capability sooner.”
Last month, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called, at the Conference on Disarmament, for international diplomacy to avert an “arms race in outer space.”
“Outer space is now facing the looming danger of weaponization,” he said. “Credible and effective multilateral measures must be taken to forestall the weaponization and arms race in outer space.”
He also said that China welcomes the ridding the world of nuclear weapons, apparently referring to President Obama’s call in April for a “world without nuclear weapons.” The Chinese foreign minister said: “The complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons and a nuclear weapon-free world have become widely embraced goals….We welcome these developments.”
We all do—but the outcome is very unclear.
Karl Grossman has done investigative journalism on space issues for more than 20 years. A full professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, he teaches as well as practices investigative reporting.
He is the author of the books Weapons In Space (Seven Stories Press) and The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet (Common Courage Press). He wrote and hosts the television documentaries Star Wars Returns (EnviroVideo) and Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (EnviroVideo).
He broke the story, in 1986 in The Nation magazine, on how ill-fated NASA shuttle Challenger, on its next scheduled mission, was to loft a space probe fueled with plutonium.
His reporting on space issues has been repeatedly cited in the annual judging of Sonoma State University’s Project Censored as among the issues most “under-reported” by U.S. media.
Challenger involved it lofting a plutonium-fueled space probe.
Karl Grossman is a founder of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space and a member of the organization’s Board of Advisors.
He has spoken on space issues around the world—including giving presentations at the UN in New York and Geneva, Switzerland, addressing members of the British Parliament, and at colleges and universities.
His articles on space matters have appeared in publications including: The New York Times, Space News, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, The Baltimore Sun, Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Progressive, Extra!, The Orlando Sentinel, The Ecologist, Earth Island Journal, E The Environmental Magazine, The Village Voice, Z Magazine, Our Right To Know, Common Cause Magazine, The Montreal Mirror, Extra!, CovertAction Quarterly and The Miami Herald.
He has received many citations for his investigative journalism including the George Polk, James Aronson and John Peter Zenger Awards.