Monday, September 12, 2005

The Pentagon's Bid to Militarize Space

Drafted By:Giuseppe Anzera

A series of Pentagon initiatives aimed at space militarization and at the creation of new types of armament -- capable of precisely striking small targets in every corner of the world and of neutralizing most of today's anti-aircraft defenses -- will likely result in a new power battlefield in the near future.

While the implementation of space weapons is likely to increase the capability gap between Washington and other powers at first, a broader vision reveals dangers involved in the move that could affect U.S. interests, for it will likely trigger off determined reactions by its competitors. Competitor states could successfully deploy a small number of low cost orbital weapons, thus forcing the U.S. to design an extremely expensive space defense system.

At the moment, a space weaponization policy may generate more troubles than advantages for Washington.

Washington's Turn Toward Space Militarization

The Pentagon's plans to militarize space have definitely emerged. In mid-May 2005, the U.S. Air Force formally asked President George W. Bush to issue a presidential directive that allows Washington to deploy defensive and offensive weapons into orbit. Formally, the new directive is necessary to replace a precedent decree (PDD-NSC-49 -- National Space Policy) issued by the Clinton administration which forbids the indiscriminate militarization of space. While the decree has not yet been issued, speculations over the Pentagon's move already hit the news.

After the 2002 unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, worries were raised about Washington's possible start of such a program, for it could transform space into a new battlefield. The U.S. Air Force request, coupled with the April 2005 launch of the XSS-11 orbital micro-satellite, increased the concerns of observers and world powers. XSS-11 is, in fact, specifically designed to disturb other states' military/reconnaissance or communication satellites.

A discontinuance of U.S. traditional policy about the restricted (e.g. peaceful) use of space could engender a new arms race -- which appears economically and technologically challenging and way beyond many states' reach.

Global Strike and Rods from God

On the technological level, the Pentagon's planning is in the advanced stage: some projects -- aimed at space weaponization -- have already been in place for some time. Among the (partially known) Pentagon's new plans, the two most interesting projects are the "Global Strike" program and the "Rods from God" program. Global Strike involves the employment of military space planes capable of carrying about 500 kg (1100 lbs) of high-precision weapons (with a circular error probability less than 3 meters) with the primary use of striking enemy military bases and command and control facilities in any point of the world.

The main strength of military space planes is the ability to reach any spot on the globe within 45 minutes. This is a short period of time that could provide U.S. forces with a formidable quick reaction capability, as opposed to the enemy's subsequent inability to organize any effective defense. Such a weapon's primary target would be the enemy's strategic forces and -- according to U.S. Air Force sources widely quoted in the press -- the Pentagon is inclined to give priority to this project. One of the main reasons, these sources say, is that the Pentagon itself -- after spending more than US$100 billion -- has finally admitted its failure to create an infallible earth-based anti-missile system to protect the American soil from ballistic strikes.

The U.S. Air Force often underscores the space plane's wide operational spectrum. In fact, its utilization encompasses that of a strategic weapon as well as that of its defensive uses of neutralizing nuclear missiles; it would have the ability to target and eliminate militant and terrorist leaders. The space plane could also be employed to suppress long-range air defenses, thanks to its high mobility, hyper-fast deployment and its immunity from the defenses of its opponents. Other uses could be envisaged in the Integrated Air Defense System, as well as surveillance tasks. Moreover, space planes could be easily deployed to support the U.S. Army's rapid reaction force and units of Marines during power projection operations and redeployment phases.

"Rods from God" is the evolution of a 1980s program. Basically, it consists of orbiting platforms stocked with metal tungsten rods around 6.1 meters long (20 feet) and 30 cm (one foot) in diameter that could be satellite-guided to targets anywhere on the earth within minutes, for the rods would move at over 11,000 km/hr (6,835 mph). This weapon exploits kinetic energy to cause an explosion the same magnitude of that of an earth-penetrating nuclear weapon, but with no radioactive fall-out. The system would function due to two satellites, one of which would work as a communications platform, while the other would contain an arsenal of tungsten rods. Each of the satellites would be about seven meters long (23 feet).

However, serious problems would arise if the Pentagon begins the operational phase -- especially from a financial perspective. Some studies maintain that Rods from God could be fully operational in ten years. The targets of the rods would be much more restricted than those of Global Strike. Their main targets remains ballistic missiles stockpiled in hardened sites, or orbital devices and satellite systems deployed by other powers -- according to the counter-space operation doctrine. Rods from God can, however, be employed to strike targets in desert areas -- be they hardened sites or concentrated hostile forces.

Its devastating striking power does not allow such a weapon to be used for other missions, if unsustainable collateral damage is to be avoided.

Other projects -- which often look like a revisited version of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative's (S.D.I.) programs -- could also be undertaken, such as space mirrors satellites redirecting laser beams from Earth against any orbit or surface target and satellites that send out radio waves with a high range in power and breadth.


The White House will face several problems if it wants to pursue the ambitious project of space militarization consisting of both offensive and defensive weapons.

The first point is the political issue. International reactions to U.S. plans have already appeared: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recently evoked an immediate reaction from Moscow, and serious consequences were threatened should an orbital weapon deployment be performed by Washington. Such a reaction could consist of a modified version of the SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of putting into orbit a remarkable quantity of space vehicles -- which could even carry military nukes, thus making the U.S. planned intercepting effort much more difficult.

It is easy to imagine that space weaponization -- once in place -- could be employed as well by U.S. rivals at any occasion, as these latter will develop mutual strategic ties just like China and Russia are doing in Central Asia.

The second problem is economic. Orbital weapons -- as the Strategic Defense Initiative showed in the 1980s -- are extremely expensive. It has been estimated that a space defense system against weak ballistic missile strikes could cost between $220 billion and $1 trillion. A laser-based system to be used against ballistic missiles would cost about $100 million for each target.

For instance, the Future Imagery Architecture -- a project aimed at the implementation of new spy satellites which are vital to identify targets for space weapons -- has already reached a cost of US$25 billion. It is a legitimate question, therefore, whether Washington really needs to finance such projects in today's geostrategic context. Moreover, would these tools be cost-effective in relation to their real operational capability? The first question raises doubts and the second one remains, at the moment, without answer. Henceforth, such initiatives resemble more and more Reagan's S.D.I.

The third fundamental problem is of a strategic nature. The implications of space militarization are enormous, and its consequences can't be predicted. It is certain that -- in the short term -- U.S. financial and technological superiority would increase the already prominent gap in military power between Washington and the rest of the world. In addition, some of the new weapons could give the White House new effective tools to fight against symmetrical (states) and asymmetrical (terror networks) threats. However, in the long run, a military colonization of outer space could very well be started by other powers -- which would hardly tolerate Washington's quasi-private use of space.

The Clinton administration decided to take the opposite route and avoided international space militarization, as it considered a new front useless because of the U.S. military's overwhelming dominance on land, sea and air.

Moreover, the orbital deployment of offensive weapons -- even though unequivocally non-nuclear -- can be perilous for various reasons. First of all, the U.S. is currently obligated not to deploy atomic or W.M.D. space weapons, as it signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Even if Rods of God is not a nuclear weapon, its impact power is near the magnitude of a nuke. Hence, it is not certain that the international community will consider it a conventional weapon, and a violation of the treaty could, therefore, be claimed. As a consequence, an indiscriminate race to space weaponization could begin -- involving the orbital deployment of W.M.D. and nuclear weapons. This latter scenario could result in a problem for the United States, a problem that its decision-makers in the 1960s strived to avoid at any cost.

Second, political consequences of a quasi-nuclear weapon should not be overlooked. If Rods of God will be used and other powers will perceive it as the equivalent of a nuclear strike, many states could change their perception of W.M.D. and nuclear weapons standards. A stark decrease in the traditional refrain from using nuclear bombs could then occur, thus changing the current strategy behind nuclear weapons: that of deterrence tools.


The road to space weaponization is hazardous. The current U.S. administration appears confident that it can handle the issue successfully. As usual, when a new category of weapons sees the light, it is not clear whether newcomers will suffer from perpetual disadvantage.

If other powers succeed in implementing low-cost orbital instruments that could endanger Washington's sophisticated space weapons, the U.S. could rapidly find itself in need of financing hyper-expensive programs designed to protect the country -- a situation which could make the Pentagon regret having opened the space front to begin with.


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