- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

Starting in the 1960s and accelerating rapidly in the 1990s, U.S. military and intelligence agencies became dependent on satellites in outer space for a variety of critical functions. Those satellites are already quite vulnerable: China is known to be developing anti-satellite weaponry, might be able to knock out U.S. satellites with lasers and could probably disable them with a nuclear detonation high in the stratosphere in the event of war. Protecting satellites has thus rapidly become an important national-security imperative.

When President Bush issues his space policy this summer to update a 10-year-old Clinton directive, space assets will figure prominently. His policy will also undoubtedly echo the conclusions of a 2001 space commission chaired by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, which concluded that the military should “ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space.”

This latter notion has some arms-control enthusiasts in a frenzy, talking of American “death stars.” Call them the Bush-as-Darth Vader crowd. No nation will “accept the U.S. developing something they see as the death star,” snarled one to the New York Times last week. The worry seems to be that the United States will “weaponize” space — something no treaty forbids, we’d like to point out — and provoke a heavenly arms race. Sadly for them, they’re both too late and too early for the relevant debates.

They’re late insofar as defensive mechanisms in outer space are unstoppable at this point. The United States would have to pull down its satellites, civilian and military, in order to consider halting plans to defend our assets in outer space. The only alternative — leaving them undefended — would be too reckless to contemplate. Even Bill Clinton’s 1996 space policy — cited by some as a more “pacific” approach to space — agreed on this point. It declared that activities in space should include “deterring, warning, and if necessary, defending against enemy attack” on U.S. space systems and “countering, if necessary, space systems and services used for hostile purposes.” It also concluded that the United States “will develop, operate and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries.” If the critics know how to deny freedom of action to U.S. enemies with anything short of anti-satellite technology or some other type of weapon, they should say so. Otherwise they should concede that they are outside the mainstream of this debate.

If the critics are too late keeping the Pentagon out of space, they’re too early on many of the programs that irritate them. Most of these remain concepts in the minds of Pentagon engineers and may never come to fruition. That includes the most controversial ones, like the so-called “Rods from God,” a platform that would shoot satellite-guided metal rods at a target on earth, which is still in development. Others, like the XSS-11, a microsatellite which may one day be used to disable enemy satellites, are well along the operational path, but are hardly the boogeymen arms-controllers worry about. “I don’t see wars in space cropping up in the near term,” Barry Watts of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments told an American Enterprise Institute audience in February. Space war is probably “50 to 80 years out,” he concluded.

All this reminds us of the late nineteenth-century British reluctance to adopt the machine gun, which helped the Germans slaughter them on battlefields in World War I, or the attitude of Meiji Japanese or late imperial Chinese rulers, who scorned Western technology and ended up prey to it. In each case a country paid a dear price for eschewing military applications of new technologies. In our case, the price could be a disabling of our satellite communications and intelligence-gathering capabilities in a war.

In a nuclear age, that’s unconscionable neglect of national security.Which is one of the key reasons the Bush administration is updating the space policy.

Talk of a “death star” grabbed headlines because of the release of George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode III,” but it contributes little to the debate. Maybe that’s for the best: Arms-controllers can fight over programs a generation or more in the future that may never be a reality. Meanwhile, the rest of us can think about defending vulnerable assets in space, a threat which is all too real and immediate.

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