Triggering a new arms race?

Bush is expected to give the Air Force the go-ahead to develop advanced space-based weapons.

Published May 19, 2005 2:38PM (EDT)

President Bush is expected to issue a directive in the next few weeks giving the U.S. Air Force a green light for the development of space weapons, potentially triggering a new global arms race, it was reported Wednesday. The new weapons being studied range from hunter-killer satellites to orbiting weapons using lasers, radio waves or even dense metal tubes dropped from space by weapons known as "rods from God" on ground targets.

A national security directive on space has been sought by the Air Force since last year. The New York Times Wednesday quoted a senior administration official as saying a decision is expected within weeks. Neither the Air Force nor the White House returned calls seeking comment.

The directive will replace a 1996 directive signed by Bill Clinton that was vaguely worded but that emphasized the peaceful use of space, in line with almost unanimous global opinion. Plans for potential space weapons were vetoed by the Clinton White House.

Space warfare experts said they expected the Bush administration directive to be similarly vague but also to signal a shift in attitude toward exploring ways of affirming U.S. dominance in space militarily. "Up to now, this has been a campaign by the Air Force to have the freedom to do what they want to do in space," said Theresa Hitchens, vice president of the Center for Defense Information. "This will, for the first time in U.S. history, give them the go-ahead."

Hitchens says the directive would trigger an arms race in space. "Let's think of a world where the U.S. has 'death stars' everywhere in space that are going over countries every 10 minutes. Do you think other countries are going to accept that?" she said.

The new push to develop space weapons comes as the Earth-based missile defense system, which is intended to hit an incoming missile with another missile and was heavily promoted by the Bush administration, has been set back by technical problems and failed tests. The Air Force's intentions were spelled out last September by Gen. Lance Lord, head of its space command, who said satellites had given U.S. military power a decisive advantage with their spying, communications and targeting capacities. That advantage had to be maintained by "space superiority." "It can be our destiny if we work it hard and continue to aggressively follow that," he said.

The potential weapons fall into two main categories as defined by a 2002 Pentagon planning document: "space control," or anti-satellite warfare, and "space force application," or attacking the ground from orbit. The Air Force claims that it can design military satellites that could protect U.S. military and civilian satellites already in orbit. However, most space experts argue that the satellites are aimed at destroying other country's satellites.

"Space force application" weapons include the global strike program, which envisages a space plane armed with half a ton of munitions. The "rods from God" scheme would aim tungsten, titanium or uranium cylinders at targets on the ground from a position in low Earth orbit. By the time they hit the Earth they would be traveling at around 7,500 mph, with the impact of a small nuclear warhead.

Another option would use mirrors to focus an intense laser beam onto terrestrial targets, referred to as a "death star" by its critics. According to one estimate, a space-based laser would cost $100 million per target. "It's an enormously expensive way of hitting the ground," said Laura Grego, a space weapons expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She said the "space control" satellites were more likely to be deployed, but even they could trigger an arms race.

"We're legitimizing the idea of attacking other people's satellites, and we have the most to lose. This technology is diffusing rapidly," Grego said. "To be the masters of space you'd have to not allow anyone else to launch into space. But you can't blow up everyone's launch pads."

By Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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