When the Bush administration announced in 2001 that it would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty so it could build a national defense system designed to shoot enemy missiles out of the sky, critics warned it would start an arms race in space. Supporters, certain the United States would win, essentially said, “Let the race begin.”
Two years later, the United States has bolted from the starting blocks and is so far ahead that it is hard to make out any potential competitors in the rearview mirror.
Pentagon scenarios for war in space go far beyond shooting down missiles that threaten the U.S. homeland.
They call for airborne and orbiting weapons that could attack targets anywhere on Earth at virtually any moment.
They call for weapons that could defend U.S. space armaments or satellites while blinding or destroying those of any potential adversary.
They call, in short, for the United States to dominate warfare's ultimate high ground, potentially locking in U.S. military superiority for decades to come.
Supporters regard such plans as the natural evolution of 21st-century military technology, much as air power came to dominate warfare in the 20th century.
Critics worry that “weaponizing” space will take the human race over yet another military threshold, creating a destabilizing arms race that would waste global resources and potentially put the United States most at risk because its economy is most dependent on satellite communications.
The swift U.S. military victory in Iraq hints at the potential of space power.
“If you ask what was the difference between Iraq's army and America's army, the big difference was satellites,” said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. “It's why the United States is unbeatable on a conventional battlefield. It's why the United States is the sole remaining superpower. It's why we frighten the living daylights out of the rest of the planet.”
Satellites allowed U.S. forces to locate Iraqi forces, coordinate ground and air attacks, and guide warheads to their targets. “Our side knew where all of our forces were at any given moment, and the other side did not,” said Steven Aftergood, a researcher for the Federation of American Scientists.
“Space dominance wins wars because it overcomes the two fundamental impediments to victory famously summarized by the 19th century theorist Karl von Clausewitz as `fog and friction,'” said science writer Bruce Sterling. “In a fog of low quality or nonexistent information, warriors can't see allies or enemies. Amid the friction of hostile onslaughts, they can't hit the adversaries they manage to see. These are the classic military problems. Having an overhead view makes them the other guy's problem.”
For the foreseeable future, “the other guy” will have to face this formidable U.S. advantage.
“We are so dominant in space that I pity a country that would come up against us,” said Maj. Gen. Franklin Blaisdell, director of space operations for the Air Force, eight days before Operation Iraqi Freedom began.
The Bush administration is laying the groundwork to eventually expand and entrench that dominance.
Last year, President Bush made explicit the goal of maintaining U.S. military superiority over any other nation or group of potential adversaries. He has not yet committed the country to deploying weapons in space, and any major space systems would require the approval of Congress and future administrations. But the Pentagon is moving forward on many fronts in the belief that space is key to “full spectrum dominance.”
Three key supporters of exploiting the U.S. lead in space warfare are Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Before joining the Bush administration, Secretary Rumsfeld headed an advisory commission that mapped out many of the space warfare plans the Pentagon is now exploring. Mr. Cheney was secretary of defense during the 1991 Gulf War, when satellites demonstrated their military effectiveness in targeting and communications. General Myers once headed the Air Force Space Command.
U.S. space power appears to be developing much in the way air power did. Airplanes in World War I were used first for reconnaissance and communications. Machine guns were added for self-defense and to attack enemy airplanes. Later, bombs and missiles were developed so that airplanes could protect troops and attack targets on the ground.
In a similar transition, U.S. satellites have provided military reconnaissance and communications since the late 1960s. They have been directing munitions to their targets since the Gulf War. In the past year, unmanned aerial vehicles have fired missiles at terrorists in Yemen. Pushing such vehicles into orbit, or attaching weapons to satellites, would complete the transformation.
Space weapons can be divided into three categories: those that would defend against ballistic missiles; those that would attack or defend satellites, and those that would attack targets on Earth.
Boeing is already building a prototype airborne laser - a modified 747 designed to shoot a laser beam from its nose and blow up ballistic missiles in their boost phase. Assuming the technology works, the next step could be putting a laser in orbit, where it could be aimed at enemy missiles, satellites, aircraft, perhaps ground targets eventually.
A variety of anti-satellite weapons could destroy, blind, or jam enemy satellites. They could be launched from the ground, from high-flying aircraft, or from other satellites. Some might be designed to simply crash into enemy satellites.
Orbiting weapons capable of attacking Earth targets could include lasers, missiles, or nonexplosive projectiles like the so-called “Rods from God” proposal - an orbiting platform that would send satellite-guided tungsten rods screaming toward Earth at a moment's notice. Simply by virtue of their speed and weight, the rods could destroy hardened bunkers four stories underground.
Most of these weapons are in relatively early stages of research and development, and many may never pan out for technical, political, or financial reasons. But the Pentagon seems determined to offer some of these space tools to U.S. policymakers within the decade.
Last October, in a move that emphasized the importance of space in how the Pentagon sees the future of warfare, the U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Strategic Command were merged into an organization that now controls all U.S. nuclear and space forces.
“The missions of SpaceCom and StratCom have evolved to the point where merging the two into a single entity will eliminate redundancies in the command structure and streamline the decision-making process,” Secretary Rumsfeld said at the time.
One of the largest components of the new StratCom - with 40,000 airmen and civilians - is Air Force Space Command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The Space Command's Strategic Master Plan calls for the United States, by 2025, to be able to strike any target in the world from space within minutes, to protect U.S. systems in space from hostile forces, and to deny space access to potential enemies.
“Today, space forces and the information they provide are a pre-eminent force multiplier, enhancing nearly every mission accomplished by the U.S. military,” the master plan says.
Space power enthusiasts see the development of space weapons as inevitable.
Lt. Col. Thomas Bell, in a 1999 paper for the Air War College, wrote, “It is inevitable mankind will weaponize space, and equally likely that weaponization will occur with maturing of specific technologies over the next 30 years.” The first country to put weapons in space, he noted, may also be the last, because it will be in a position to deny the use of space to lagging competitors.
“If America doesn't weaponize space, an enemy will,” said Peter Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages the spy satellites.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jack Kelly, a former Marine, was deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration.