Space Weaponization and the 2008 Election
By Y. Brody at Oct 11, 2008
"Peace is bad for business."—Naomi Wolf, The End of America: Letter to a Young Patriot.
Weapons in space. Extraterrestrial war. For many Americans, these words bring to mind fantastic images from childhood, high-tech conflicts conjured by creative science-fiction writers and Hollywood studios.
The incredible reality today is that these are also issues in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. However, most of the relevant facts are ignored by U.S. media organizations and Congress has yet to stage a prominent hearing on the issue. U.S. space weaponization and the policies, plans and budgeting that support it continues to go essentially ignored in the national discourse. Yet Americans have a clear choice this November between keeping the solar system relatively peaceful and actively preparing the Earth's orbit for battle.
Despite our unique dependence on space infrastructure for civilian and military operations, the U.S. continues to reject attempts by rival powers to negotiate an outer space peace treaty that would ban such weapons. On August 31, 2006, George W. Bush authorized a new National Space Policy. Like the Clinton Administration policy announced a decade earlier, it advocates for the military domination and control of space but goes even further in aggressiveness and unilateralism. The latest policy emphasizes the use of military force in space, ignores the legal rights of other nations' to use space, and deemphasizes cooperation. At least partly as a result of U.S. policy, China and India, emerging space powers, have reportedly begun to develop their own space weapons and Russia and a host of other nations have the technology to do the same if they should so decide. If allowed to continue, weaponization would decrease security for all the world's citizens and a war in space would be especially devastating for the U.S. due to its particular dependence on orbiting satellites, whose fixed speed along predictable orbits make them easy targets. Hits could have immediate and devastating effects for America economically and militarily. The U.S. owns over half of the 850 satellites in operation today, about 135 of which are for military use, and is currently the uncontested dominant user of a peaceful space (1).
Government documents show that top officials realize full well that current American policy is decreasing national security by forcing greater global economic disparity, and thus antipathy towards the U.S. (2) Nonetheless, rather than employ diplomacy and make good faith shifts in foreign policy that would aim to increase economic justice, the current medium and long-term military plan is to actively prepare for a ongoing war over world resources against poor, young populations and to infuse the Earth's orbit with fantastic, electronic killing machines. This is supposedly going to make us all safer (3).
The general question of whether unilateralism or diplomatic cooperation--with military threats or force as backup—makes wiser foreign policy has made its mark as a real issue in the 2008 election. Although the even larger question of military spending and the role it plays in both American domestic and foreign policy is shamefully not on the bipartisan table (both candidates favor a buildup in Afghanistan, for example, despite regular atrocities committed by the U.S. against civilians and the recent release of a widely-discussed report by the Rand Corp. that found that military solutions against terrorist organizations were effective in only 7% of cases), this election is likely going to determine the extent of future U.S aggression, both in general and specifically on the issue of deploying weapons in space (4). The crucial question that needs to be debated both before and after the election is this: Should the U.S. aim for weaponized dominion over the heavens in order to try to maintain its fading hegemony on Earth?
At the end of his Presidential term in 1961, President Eisenhower, an ex-general, warned Americans about a "military-industrial complex" that, if allowed to prosper, would ultimately be devastating to American democracy and civil liberties: he was describing the pernicious relationship between defense budgeting and the American economy. Almost 50 years after Eisenhower's dire warning, yearly Pentagon spending is about to exceed $700 billion, rivaling only the financial bailout package in amount of public spending, and weapons are reportedly the U.S.'s primary industrial export (5). Known spending for space weapons in the FY2009 budget is at least $1.3 billion, according to an analysis by the Center for Defense Information. In addition, each year a portion of the defense budget is classified, intended for secret programs. In recent years, "black budget" spending by the Missile Defense Agency, Defense Advance Research Project Agency, and the Air Force has spiked sharply, increasing 60% between FY2006 and FY2007 (6).
Although the militarization of space by powerful states has been occurring since the era of Sputnik, space-based weaponry, whether aimed at other satellites or targets within the earth's atmosphere, has yet to be actually deployed. Barring a sharp change in U.S. government planning, however, this could soon change; many experts are warning that deployment of space weaponry will ignite an extremely dangerous arms race in outer space. Even though the U.S., compared to the rest of the world, has by far the most satellites in orbit and therefore the most to lose, the American government has consistently rejected offers to negotiate for a new treaty aimed at peace in space. Rivals Russia and China have been pushing for years to begin talks but were once again rejected by the U.S. when they presented a joint draft treaty banning weapons at a UN conference in February, 2008.
Congress has yet to put the issue in the limelight. Rep. Dennis Kucinich and 34 co-sponsors introduced a bill in 2005 to prohibit space weapons ("Why reach for the stars with guns in our hands? Are there weapons of mass destruction on Mars?") but it never made it out of subcommittee (7). A subcommittee hearing was also held in May of last year to discuss whether or not current policy is protecting U.S. security but it did not generate any significant press (8).
Unfortunately, since Congress has not prioritized the issue and since plans to weaponize space are rarely and superficially reported by U.S. media organizations, the relevant facts remain largely unknown to most Americans and important debate on the topic is missing. The lack of media debate is directly related to Eisenhower's earlier warning about mutually beneficial relationships between elite groups, now described by some as the military-industrial-media complex: Individuals employed by or otherwise linked to the federal government, the military/aerospace industries, and the corporate media are all beneficiaries of mega-contracts for huge corporations to develop and build weapons and other equipment. Conglomerates in some cases own both media and military-related business (e.g., General Electric) (9). Media corporations also receive crucial advertising dollars from the military industry and employ board members who "enjoy close links—financial and social—with the military industry and Washington's foreign policy establishment," according to media-watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) (10). Media overreliance on "official sources" also means that if political and business elites are not discussing an issue, or if they agree on it, it tends not to get much coverage. In addition, putting military spending aside, lack of significant coverage is also related to the tendency for commercial news media to prefer "figure" issues to "ground" issues, i.e., to prefer coverage of more acute events, which generate ratings, and to place less emphasis on context and background issues such as this one.
If facts about plans for space weaponization were fully and honestly discussed in the media this issue would be more likely to provoke a needed national debate. No other issue affects so many yet is so blatantly ignored. Yet in the current media system, where a handful of companies control the discourse, this prospect seems unlikely without significant debate in Congress or mass protests in the streets.
Despite the lack of serious attention of the issue in the media, polls show that American citizens, when asked, have a pretty clear opinion on the issue of space weapons and arms control. According to one survey, when opposing positions on the issue were summarized ("we should avoid creating an arms race in space" vs. "it could serve important military purposes such as protecting U.S. satellites") 78% of Americans think that the U.S. should not be the first country to put weapons in space. 80% of respondents thought that a new treaty banning weapons in space is a good idea rather than a bad idea. Majorities of both Republicans (63%) and Democrats (83%) say they would have more confidence in a candidate for President who is against weapons in space than one who advocates it (11).
The two major candidates profess stark differences of opinion on the issue. Obama has committed himself to seeking a worldwide ban on space weapons (12) and his running mate Biden has made statements in the past warning against a space arms race well before he joined the ticket (13). McCain has made no specific pronouncement on weaponization but according to his website he favors "all options" for space—a statement that amounts to support for the status quo, and one that reveals a lack of interest in any new treaty that would restrict military options (14). Also of concern is that McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, is a board member of the principle neoconservative think tank, Project for a New American Century, a champion of the unilateralist approach and the ideological wellspring of the Bush II Administration.
Even if the Democrats were to take office, reversing such an entrenched policy of "full spectrum dominance" of space would not be easy. Obama has advocated expanding the U.S. military in order to face down 21st century threats and maintain superpower status, a vote of confidence for the complex and ideology that produced plans for war in space. And in a relatively rare article on the issue, the New York Times reasoned that a future U.S. president who takes a stand against weaponization "would have to go up against the generals and admirals, contractors, lawmakers and others who strongly support the goal of keeping American superiority in space" (15). Current public opinion, even without serious national debate, suggests that the fight against hotheaded policymaking and wasteful spending could gain a powerful ally if the American people started weighing in. Considering the possible consequences of an all-out arms race in space, continued avoidance of the issue is not an option.
The 1996 National Space Policy announced under Clinton, while not quite as aggressively unilateral, paved the way for the current offensive (16). According to this document, national security was understood as dependent on maintaining military dominance of space, including potential denial of space to adversaries. A year later the U.S. Space Command followed up with a colorful brochure entitled "Vision for 2020" outlining the new plan. In frank language—and with graphics that might make George Lucas proud—the reasoning behind the need for American military control and dominance of space is explained. Military planners blatantly acknowledged the social injustice being caused by American and Western neoliberal policies, aka the Washington Consensus, or corporate globalization. In objectively-valid reasoning that would certainly be seen as scandalous if uttered by any U.S. politician in the current media environment, strategists explained that American-led globalization is bringing a "widening economic divide" around the world that would inevitably increase antipathy towards the U.S. and thus bring decreased security and increased threats to American interests. The obvious solution therefore is to strive for absolute hegemony, or "full spectrum dominance," of space in order to control life on Earth (17).
The current space policy is part and parcel of the "Bush Doctrine," a National Security Strategy document which redefined the very nature of self-defense (18). Bush announced an active strategy to prevent "emerging threats" to U.S. peace and power using military force and not simply to wait around for imminent uses of force by adversaries. The updated National Space Policy, released by the Bush Administration in 2006 one year after making the U.S. the first country ever to oppose the annual non-binding UN resolution "Preventing an Arms Race in Outer Space," applies this new paradigm to space (19). The document states the intention to put necessary resources towards developing an "operational force structure" to "sustain U.S. advantage" geopolitically, through "space control" and "space force application," defined by the Air Force as "forces that deliver kinetic effects to, from, or through space." Also new is the intent to "dissuade and deter" other powers from developing capabilities that could put U.S. space assets at risk. This policy, sometimes characterized as revealing a transparent U.S. ambition to own space for itself, is perceived by many military and space experts and foreign governments to be highly dangerous because if left unchanged it is likely to ignite an arms race in space (20).
However, arms control negotiations are currently out of the question. Current U.S. policy takes a firmly unilateral position on the right to weaponize space, including strategic opposition to any international agreement aimed at inhibiting its "freedom of action," meaning freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack, in space: "The United States 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. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests." Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information testified to Congress in 2007 that, "The idea that U.S. use of space, deemed a "global commons" by the Outer Space Treaty, should be singularly exempted from any future rules or limitations is unprecedented." Referring to several Air Force manuals produced recently, she concluded in her testimony, "It is obvious that taken together, these military doctrine documents interpret current National Space Policy as not only endorsing, but requiring, a full-scale space warfare strategy on the part of the United States," adding, "the more the United States seeks high-power means to both protect itself in space and ensure that others cannot use space against it, the more threatening U.S. intentions seem and the more others will seek to counter U.S. actions" (21).
The greatest irony is that the weaponization of space is fundamentally at odds with commercial, scientific, and even military projects. Both Clinton and Bush II policy cited the protection of American commercial and other interests as a core reason for the "full spectrum dominance" of space. Commercial space endeavors comprise a significant part of the American economy and infrastructure, pumping in literally hundreds of billions of dollars and satellites have become an indispensable part of our modern everyday lives. American satellites support modern telecommunications including TV broadcasts, the internet, and long-distance telephone service; allow us to withdrawal money from ATM machines; provide Global Positioning System (GPS) and navigation capability; predict the weather; help deliver humanitarian aid and emergency assistance; and they power financial systems, transactions, and the global economy. Military conflict in space could potentially destroy all of this rather quickly. America's weaponization strategy will put low-orbit satellites used for peaceful purposes at increased risk since they can be destroyed by space debris the size of a marble (a disintegrated satellite is a serious threat to other satellites) and will also become immediate targets in a space arms race. Experts invoke common sense in maintaining a weapons-free space environment would allow the U.S. to maintain its military and commercial superiority in space by mitigating risk of debris or outright attack (22).
Current international law bans only weapons of mass destruction in space due to the persistent refusal of the U.S. since 1967 to accept a total ban on weapons in outer space (23). Nonetheless, nuclear weapons have not been specifically ruled out of U.S. plans (nuclear power in space for "exploration or operational capabilities" is discussed at length in the 2006 National Space Policy document) and Republican officials in the Bush Administration have shown their contempt for established arms control treaties by unilaterally withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had put some added restrictions on space weapons, in 2002. As for the possibility of a new treaty to ban all types of weapons in space, the U.S. has, since the end of the Carter Administration, prevented international negotiations from getting started. (24). Peace in space is simply not a priority. The most recent concrete example: The Bush Administration knew about Chinese plans to destroy an obsolete weather satellite with a ground-based missile in January, 2007, the worst debris-causing event in space ever, yet it did nothing to try to prevent it and stayed silent as low-orbit space instantly became up to 40% more perilous (25). The Chinese test raised fears in the U.S. mainstream media about space security but the wider context of U.S. intransigence on even starting arms control negotiations was completely ignored in most reports.
Weapons currently in development by the U.S. include those that can strike the earth extremely quickly and precisely from outer space. Kinetic bombardment with bundles of tungsten or titanium telephone pole-like objects, sometimes called "Rods from God," is one potential option, as is a "Global Strike" space plane that can hypothetically deliver a payload to any place on earth, such as a launch pad, in under one hour (with a rare foot-in the-sand, Congress refused to authorize the weaponization of this vehicle in 2004 but development funding continues annually). "Directed energy" development projects include using lasers, mirrors, and radio waves to theoretically provide "everything from a tap on the shoulder to toast" (26). Mass slaughter is always a risk with such complex systems due to the unpredictability of what experts in the field call "normal accidents" (27).
Space-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry is also in development (ground-based ASAT weapons are already viable but have not as yet been deployed). In fact, the XSS microsatellite series has already seen two test launchings, in 2003 and 2005 (28). The XSS can, like similar projects, hypothetically surround and attack other satellites like street thugs, or just photograph and jam them. Also, a modern version of the Strategic Defense Initiative (Reagan's "star wars" program), called the Space Test Bed, could potentially take out satellites, missiles or deny space access to others during a crisis through a system of space-based "kill vehicle" interceptors (29).
Since U.S. satellites have become fairly easy targets for less powerful militaries, an important security question for military planners is what is the best way to protect them. In testimony before a Congressional subcommittee in May, 2007, physicist Laura Grego acknowledged the high threat to U.S. satellites and reasoned that testing of such technology would be foolhardy:
"Because of the intrinsic vulnerability of satellites to various types of interference, one must assume that the United States will not have a monopoly on ASAT capabilities, and that other countries will be able to develop effective ASAT capabilities of some type if they have the incentive.... Pursuing anti-satellite technologies in the absence of any restrictions on them will likely increase the threats that U.S. satellites face, both by ASAT weapons developed by other countries and the possible debris that testing and use of destructive ASAT weapons would cause. Clearly the approach in the NSP [2006 National Space Policy] of using only a few of the tools in the toolbox—technical tools for space control, but not diplomatic tools—is misguided. The United States has available other approaches that are likely to garner more security" (30).
In contrast, space weaponization is viewed as inevitable from the U.S. government's self-fulfilling perspective, despite a lack of evidence and a host of risks that outweigh any potential benefits. The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, headed by Donald Rumsfeld, recommended just after Bush II took office in 2001 that "new military capabilities for operation to, from, in and through space" are necessary in order to avoid a "space pearl harbor." Unsurprisingly, 7 out of 13 of those commission members had ties to aerospace companies that stand to gain from this tenet of national security space policy (31).
To become part of the global activist network against weapons in space, go to www.space4peace.org
- http://www.cdi.org/pdfs/space-weapons.pdf ; Laura Grego discussed U.S. satellites in her Congressional testimony: http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/space_weapons/policy_issues/ucs-testimony-by-laura-grego.html
- See "Vision for 2020" brochure, note #17 below.
- For more on the U.S. military's new plans for a permanent resource war against foreign youth, see http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2008/0922/1221998220381.html
- For info regarding defense spending for FY2009: http://www.armscontrolcenter.org/policy/securityspending/articles/021008_rescue_package_perspective/ ; For more on the recent state of the military-industrial complex: http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/corporate/dd/aerospace.html and http://www.counterpunch.org/gagnon08032006.html
- http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/01/science/01patc.html http://www.cdi.org/program/document.cfm?DocumentID=4232&from_page=../index.cfm
- On General Electric's links to the defense industry: http://www.warprofiteers.com/article.php?list=type&type=16 . Also, Westinghouse Electric, a major defense contractor, was tied up with CBS in the 1990s before selling off its defense holdings: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0DE3DD1239F937A35752C0A960958260 , http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940CE5D7173CF935A35751C0A961958260
- 1996 NSP: http://www.fas.org/spp/military/docops/national/nstc-8.htm
- "Vision for 2020" brochure: http://www.fas.org/spp/military/docops/usspac/visbook.pdf
- 2002 National Security Strategy aka the "Bush Doctrine": http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss/2002/index.html
- 2006 NSP: http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nspd/space.pdf ; also see http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/07/05/opinion/edmarshall.php for a report on U.S. rejection of international negotiations for a new space treaty. For more information on the annual UN resolution to prevent an arms race in outer space and the draft treaty by Russia and China see: http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/paros/wgroup.html
- Caldicott, Helen & Eisendrath, Craig. War in Heaven: The Arms Race in Outer Space (New Press, 2007) reviews in detail the history of space militarization, discusses U.S. satellite infrastructure (both civilian and military) and the threats involved, and makes a strong case against weaponization.
- The 1967 Outer Space Treaty: http://www.state.gov/t/ac/trt/5181.htm#treaty ; for a detailed history negotiations for arms control in space see Caldicott & Eisendrath (2007).
- For more information on space weapons programs in development: http://www.cdi.org/program/document.cfm?DocumentID=4232&from_page=../index.cfm ; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10805240/ ; http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/03/12/INGS6HID5A1.DTL ; http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/18/business/18space.html?_r=3&oref=slogin&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
- For an explanation of the concept of "normal accidents" see http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/codeq/accident/accident.pdf