The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October 1957. Although that beeping metal basketball enchanted the world, it alarmed the Pentagon. What would the Soviets do next — place weapons in space?
Generals and think-tank warriors urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to beat the Russians to the punch by launching a space-weapons program. Eisenhower refused; he would not extend the arms race into space.
From then on, both the United States and the Soviet Union proclaimed that space should be dedicated to peaceful purposes. Nonetheless, both launched ever greater numbers of satellites useful to Earth-bound military analysts and combat commanders.
But neither nation ever deployed actual space weapons. Although space was thoroughly militarized, it remained a weapons-free sanctuary. That sanctuary notion was eventually embodied in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which the United States pushed for. Article I says, in part:
“The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.”
Although the exact meaning of those generous words has been debated for more than 30 years in international forums, space has remained a weapons-free sanctuary. But the very notion of space sanctuary is now in jeopardy.
The space commission speaks
US Space Command, a joint Air Force, Navy, and Army operation created in 1985, launches and operates military satellites that “enhance” the effectiveness of terrestrial forces, as in the Gulf War and the later NATO air campaign over Yugoslavia.
But for 15 years, Space Command has also put boundless energy into developing plans for more proactive missions — “space control” and “force application,” should a future president authorize placing actual weapons in space.
Space control involves assuring that the United States and its allies have access to space while “denying enemies the same freedom,” according to Space Command's Long Range Plan issued in 1998. At the least, that would call for anti-satellite weapons. But the latter mission — force application — truly edges into Star Trek territory.
“Global Engagement,” says the plan, “is the combination of global surveillance of the Earth (see anything, any time), worldwide missile defense, and the potential ability to apply force from space. ...” The United States, the plan says, should acquire the capability to “hold at risk a finite number of high value earth targets with near instantaneous force application from space.”
Translation: The United States should eventually base guided missiles and directed-energy weapons — such as lasers — in space, ready to blow up or zap earthly targets on a moment's notice.
With the appointment of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a space power partisan, these ideas, which have been kicked around for decades at the Pentagon, within the services, at the military staff colleges, and in defense-related think tanks, may move to a front burner.
On January 11, the same day as Rumsfeld's confirmation hearing in the Senate, the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (Space Commission) issued its report. Rumsfeld chaired the commission.
The health of the US economy as well as the effectiveness of its military forces, the report says, are inextricably linked to the continued functioning of a vast array of space-based military and commercial “assets” — intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, warning, communications, weather, mapping, and navigation satellites.
The report recommends that the US “develop and deploy the means to deter and defend against hostile acts directed at US space assets and against the uses of space hostile to US interests.”
But the commission does not stop there. The United States should also consider developing the hardware and the will to “project power through and from space in response to events anywhere in the world. Unlike weapons from aircraft, land forces, or ships, space missions initiated from earth or space could be carried out with little transit, information, or weather delay.
“Having this capability would give the US a much stronger deterrent and, in a conflict, an extraordinary military advantage.”
No new treaty
“There is,” the Space Commission report says, “no blanket prohibition in international law on placing or using weapons in space, applying force from space to earth, or conducting military operations in and through space.”
That's true. The Outer Space Treaty contains plenty of grand phrases. But when it comes to weapons, it only bans “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.” That means, according to the United States, that “precision weaponry” could be placed in space without violating the treaty.
Since Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, members of the UN General Assembly have annually urged the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to negotiate a new treaty banning all weapons in space, not just weapons of mass destruction.
But just as surely as the space weapons matter is brought up in Geneva year after year, the United States blocks substantive action.Many US allies are puzzled and alarmed by that. Consider Canada, whose officers work side by side in Colorado Springs with Space Command officers in the closely parallel organization, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Despite its NORAD ties, the Canadian government describes an attempt by any nation to implement “space control” as “destabilizing.” Canada has long called for a treaty to ban weapons in space.
Allies of the United States also worry that the proposed “limited” national missile defense system is a Trojan horse, a first step toward resurrecting the Reagan-era Star Wars fantasy. Space Command pulls no punches about that. The only good missile defense system, it says, is one that relies on space-based weapons.
Despite the florid and provocative rhetoric of the Space Command and the Space Commission, there is no arms race in space today. But Donald Rumsfeld is a tenacious man and an ardent champion of weaponizing space. He is likely to begin a space-weapons push sometime during his tenure.
If Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld can persuade the president to go along, a new kind of arms race is likely to follow, a space-arms race, a 21st century version of the Cold War.
The right stance
“The American military is built to dominate all phases and mediums of combat,” Gen. Richard B. Myers, chief of Space Command, said before being promoted last year to vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the penultimate post in the uniformed military. “We must acknowledge that our way of war requires superiority in all mediums of conflict, including space. Thus, we must plan for and execute to win space superiority.”
In the United States, such rhetoric seems unremarkable. But in some world capitals, it sounds threatening, a Pax Americana, a velvet-glove hegemony.
Would China and Russia, to name just two not-insignificant states, be ready and willing to let the United States play Space Cop to the world?
In the future, goes one worst-case argument by a Russian analyst, the United States will no longer need nuclear weapons to hold distant strategic targets hostage. It will have the capability to strike with lethal accuracy with land-, air-, sea-, or space-launched conventional weapons.
“There are no grounds on which to speak of US intentions, since we do not know what they are,” wrote Vitaly Tsymbal in the June-July 1997 issue of the Moscow-based Yaderny Kontrol (Nuclear Control.)
“We can, however, speak of military and technical capabilities, and they will soon make it possible to launch a destructive [conventional] strike against Russia's strategic forces, thereby depriving Russia of any significant capability whatsoever of launching a counter-strike against facilities located on US territory or other facilities with which the USA associates its vital interests.”
The United States is not an imperial power in the classic sense. But the fact that it intends to develop the military hardware, the doctrine, and the personnel to globally dominate the land, sea, air and — possibly — space may have unintended consequences.
History suggests that when one state achieves or attempts to achieve overwhelming military superiority, other states react, either by forming “balancing” alliances or by developing other countervailing strategies, such as nuclear or biological weapons.
Over the next decade or two, one can bet that at least a few states will do just that. These states will not assume that US intentions will forever remain benign. They will not remain passive as the United States occupies, in one of Space Command's favorite phrases, the “ultimate high ground.”
(A simple mind game: What would the US reaction be if Russia or China announced that it was intent on achieving military dominance in space over the next couple of decades?)
Does the world need expensive space-related arms races that suck up scarce resources, guaranteeing that elemental human concerns such as sufficient food, decent housing, and clean air and water will sink to even lower priorities?
President Eisenhower said it best in April 1953: “Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
But beyond the “opportunity costs” Eisenhower spoke of is the all-too-common endpoint of arms races: Periods of rising tension, miscalculation on all sides, preemptive strikes, and finally a war that no one really wanted and which everyone in some sense loses. Indeed, that is exactly why Eisenhower put his considerable prestige behind the space sanctuary notion more than 40 years ago.
Preserving space as a weapons-free sanctuary is the right stance for the United States, wrote Air Force Lt. Col. Bruce M. DeBlois, in the Winter 1998 issue of Airpower Journal, the Air Force's professional journal.
DeBlois, now division chief of Strategic Studies and Assessments at the National Reconnaissance Office, says a policy of space sanctuary is justified for a host of political, strategic, and practical reasons. But he also notes that it is consistent with the national character: “The idea of putting weapons in space to dominate the globe is simply not compatible with who we are and what we represent as Americans.”