Saturday, January 20, 2007

Look Up! Is It a Threat? Or a Plea for a Ban?

Published: January 21, 2007
The New York Times

THE nation’s star warriors, frustrated that their plans to arm the heavens went nowhere for two decades despite more than $100 billion in blue-sky research, felt a shiver of hope last week with news that China had conducted its first successful test of an antisatellite weapon.

Having long warned of the Chinese threat, they now said their fears were vindicated and expressed optimism for their own projects, which range from new kinds of defensive satellites to flotillas of space weapons and orbital battle stations able to shatter all kinds of enemy arms.

China, a group of 26 “Star Wars” supporters warned in a recent report, has “begun to erode American space dominance” and will accelerate that slide with “both lasers and missiles capable of destroying satellites.”

H. Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group in Washington, said in an interview that the cost to the United States of new arms and defensive measures would most likely run to “billions or tens of billions of dollars a year, pretty much year in and year out,” and added, “I don’t think that’s excessive.”

But the prospect of a new arms race in space is also energizing an opposition, including arms control supporters and fiscal conservatives alarmed at the rising costs of the Iraq war. Treaties could short-circuit the costly game of measure-countermeasure on the high frontier before it expands any further, they say. Currently, no international treaty or domestic law forbids such developments.

An unfettered arms race could hurt the United States more than any other nation, arms control advocates argue. The United States owns or operates 443 of the 845 active satellites that now orbit the planet, or 53 percent. By contrast, China owns just 4 percent.

“We not only have the most satellites but they are more integrated into our economy and our way of making war than any other country,” said Laura Grego, a staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Mass., that takes liberal positions on arms issues and environmental issues. “We have the most to lose in an unrestrained arms race.”

But that logic has not persuaded the Star Wars advocates, who say the United States needs to protect its huge investment in space satellites by being ahead of anyone else in shooting such devices out of the sky.

Diplomats from around the globe have gathered in Geneva for many years to hammer out a treaty on the “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space,” which would ban space weapons. Arms control supporters say China and Russia have backed the process, while the United States has dragged its feet.

Last year, John Mohanco, a State Department official, told the diplomats in Geneva that as long as attacks on satellites remained a threat, “our government will continue to consider the possible role that space-related weapons may play in protecting our assets.”

A Heritage Foundation analysis of such diplomacy says China is charging ahead to build space arms while “seeking to block the United States from developing its own anti-satellite weapons and space-based ballistic missile defense systems.”

China’s strategy, the analysis says, is clear: “Work on public opinion in the United States to make moral arguments against weapons in space, develop international coalitions to limit the way that the United States can use space, and develop China’s own weapons systems and tactics to destroy American satellites and space-based weapons.”

But Theresa Hitchens, a critic of the administration’s space arms research who is director of the Center for Defense Information, a private group in Washington that tracks military programs, said that China’s antisatellite test might be “a shot across the bow” meant to prod the Bush administration into serious negotiations. In the test, a Chinese missile pulverized an aging Chinese weather satellite more than 500 miles above Earth on Jan. 11.

Ms. Hitchens warned that an arms race in space could easily spin out of control, noting that India has been “rattling its sword” and some experts in that country are openly calling for antisatellite arms. A global competition that produced armadas of space weapons, she added, could raise the risk of accidental nuclear war if, for instance, a whirling piece of space junk knocked out a spy satellite.

“How do you know it’s not a precursor to a nuclear attack?” she asked. “Do you have an itchy trigger finger? If you’ve got a lot of satellites out there, you probably do.”

The Bush administration has conducted secret research that critics say could produce a powerful ground-based laser meant to shatter enemy satellites. The project, parts of which were made public through Air Force budget documents submitted to Congress last year, appears to be part of a wide-ranging administration effort to develop space weapons, both defensive and offensive.

John E. Pike, who is the director of, a group in Washington that conducts research on military and space topics, said that treaties and defensive measures were the smart, cheap way to counter antisatellite threats, and that the star warriors in the wake of the Chinese tests were playing a false card.

“They’re trying to piggyback on a totally unrelated topic,” he said. “This says nothing about space-based weapons, star wars or any of that.”

But a report, “Missile Defense, the Space Relationship and the 21st Century,” researched by a group of organizations that focus on national security issues and published late last year by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, called the military development of the high frontier vital to the nation’s protection from a wide variety of threats — including Chinese arms.

“Without the means to dissuade, deter and defeat the growing number of strategic adversaries now arrayed against it,” the group warned, “the United States will be unable to maintain its status of global leadership.”


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