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GUEST COMMENTARY: Outer space arms race posed for conflict

Monday, March 14, 2011 | 11:58 a.m. CDT

Since the earliest days when communication satellites were first launched into orbit, outer space has been used for military purposes. Today, military establishments all over the world use satellites for command and control, communication, monitoring, early warning and for various forms of navigation via the indispensable Global Positioning System (GPS). According to the online project "Reaching Critical Will" (RCW), the U.S. also uses satellites to direct bombing raids and "to control any situation or defeat any adversary across the range of military operations."

Such militarization of space is quite different than space weaponization. In that regard, RCW states: "Space weaponization is generally understood to refer to the placement in orbit of space-based devices that have a destructive capacity capability." Those weapons include lasers, particle beams and space-based rockets which can attack the satellites of other countries, or land-based rockets which can attack the satellites of other countries and their land-based military and civilian installations anywhere on Earth. To date, there has been no evidence that any nation, including the U.S., has yet deployed offensive weapons in space.

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In his book "Weapons in Space," journalist Karl Grossman quotes General Joseph Ashy, former commander of the U.S. Space Command, as saying: "It is politically sensitive, but it is 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 were are going to fight INTO space ... that's why the U.S. has developed programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms" (emphasis added). The general also commented on the topics of "space control" and "space force applications," saying: "We'll expand the 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." Grossman also quotes former secretary of the Air Force Keith Hall, as saying: "With regard to space dominance, we have it, we like it, and we're going to keep it."

Sadly, Secretary Hall's position, if adopted, will accelerate an arms race at sea, in the air, and in outer space. Consequently, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars which could be used for health, education, job development and true homeland security will be squandered. Clearly, this madness must be stopped.

One of the most troubling aspects of an arms race in space is the potential for the proliferation of massive amounts of space debris. In January 2007, China used a ground-based anti-satellite weapon to destroy one of its own deteriorating weather satellites. In the process, it unleashed massive amounts of space debris whose small pieces travel in orbit at about 14,000 mph. Such debris, including that of the U.S., released more than 50 years of space activity, already poses a considerable hazard to various spacecraft — U.S. and other.

According to RCW, this orbital crowding could become worse if a large number of space weapons are placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Continued launching and testing of space based weapons will also add markedly to the dangerous space debris and leave less room for peaceful civilian systems. Those problems can occur during periods of relative peace, as well as during times of war. In the latter case, many civilian satellites will be destroyed, and their vast distribution of debris will cause chaotic disruption of the Internet, resulting in a breakdown of most electronic communications involving financial, health, security, environmental and other societal operations necessary to our "wired" way of life on this planet. 

To avoid the tragedies which the weaponization of space is likely to trigger, the nations of the world need to develop multilaterally negotiated prohibitions on those weapons through the writing, signing and ratification of a new outer space peace and security treaty. Such a treaty would ban the testing, development, production and deployment or use of any kind of weapon in space.

There is widespread international support, including that of Russia and China, for an agreement which will prevent an arms race in space. Unfortunately, the U.S. takes the position that an arms race in space is unlikely, and a treaty for its prevention is totally unnecessary. This position, which is fully supported by the U.S. Air Force Space Command, runs counter to any short or long term move toward a peaceful world community based on common security and peaceful uses of the heavens. That U.S. position needs to be strongly challenged by all concerned citizens.

Bill Wickersham is an adjunct professor of peace studies at MU.


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