In the depths of the Cold War, as the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union escalated, the terrible benchmarks were recorded — nuclear test dates, the unveiling of new weapons systems, the brinksmanship of the Cuban missile crisis.
So mark this date for a future history book: On Jan. 11 of this year, a ground-launched missile destroyed a space satellite orbiting more than 500 miles above the Earth. It wasn’t an American or a Russian missile — it was Chinese. Ostensibly, China was just removing an obsolete weather station. Metaphorically, it was a shot across the bows for the U.S., and it rattled windows in the Pentagon and around the world, as surely as a blast on a Pacific atoll did in 1946. The launch showed military planners everywhere that the door had been opened on space as another field of war — despite a 40-year-old treaty and a half-century of effort by many nations to prevent that. The Chinese satellite destruction was so important that some have called it 1/11 — the space-war version of 9/11.
But it wasn’t really China that blew open that door. Six years to the day before the Chinese missile launch, a group headed by future U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asserted that it’s only a matter of time until there is all-out war in the heavens. Every part of our world has become a theater of war, the Rumsfeld-led group advised, and space will be no different. And if that’s so, the report said, the U.S. needs to get there first, with the biggest guns. At least since then, the space weapons rush has been on, and North Texas defense contractors have been getting a major share of the market, investing technology, experts, and millions of lobbying dollars each year in the effort. Lockheed Martin, the nation’s top defense contractor and a major Fort Worth employer, has been the second-biggest beneficiary of this new arms race, helping develop a whole new alphabet soup of weapons and defense systems — the Aegis, the PAC-3, the XSS-11 anti-satellite system. Raytheon, with several North Texas installations, is another major and controversial space-war player, the main or subcontractor on a host of space-related weapon and defense systems, and a major supplier to the CIA and other spy agencies.
The space weapons list includes things like micro-satellites, which could stalk and destroy satellites of other nations; the EAGLE project, a series of orbiting mirrors to direct beams from ground- or air-based lasers at targets in space; and the Falcon, a sort of space shuttle for bombs. Then there are the still-theoretical “rods from God,” 20-foot-long tungsten poles, a foot in diameter, that would be launched from low Earth orbit at 25,000 miles per hour to pulverize “hardened” targets in enemy territory, such as intensely protected underground bunkers. Just last month, space warriors and defense contractors gathered in Omaha for the Strategic Space and Defense Conference, held in the backyard of the sprawling installation that houses the U.S. military command in charge of the nation’s nuclear and space weapons systems. Participants promoted new weapons and listened to speakers discussing the “timely application of space power” and systems to deliver “global effects.” They weren’t talking about solar energy or a cure for global warming.
The scariest part of the space-war rhetoric and reality may not be the idea of developing weapons and defense systems to be held in readiness against attacks by others. Space could become just another platform from which this country could launch pre-emptive strikes against its perceived enemies. And — is it really a surprise? — space weapons stations could be used to increase even further the United States’ ability to spy on its own people. This fall marks the 40th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, an agreement among 98 nations, including the United States, that bans nuclear arms from space. That seemed the most important limit at the time — the treaty made no mention of other weapons. Still, no nation has ever launched an attack of any kind into or from space.
Why should citizens even care what goes on outside the planet and its atmosphere? The prospect of space war seems a lot less ominous than the threat of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear holocaust once did. Nobody lives in space; no civilians would be maimed or killed by a robotic shoot-’em-up in orbit. Helen Caldicott and Craig Eisendrath answered such arguments in their book War in Heaven: The Arms Race in Outer Space, published earlier this year. In the wake of the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, they wrote, humans around the globe began asking, “Would [outer space] be the venue for wars and synchronized killings, or the common space for a complex of cooperative peaceful efforts benefiting our species? The two uses of space could not exist side by side.”
The pristine emptiness into which Sputnik ventured no longer exists. Today, the busier orbits around Earth (ranging from 300 to 22,000 miles out) more closely resemble the industrial parks and military bases that litter the outskirts of cities. The Air Force Space Command actually keeps a catalog of every human-made object that orbits the Earth. The current total: 18,400. The Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation reports that the global space industry grew at warp speed in 2006, at an 18 percent annual rate that sent it past $220 billion in sales of space-related goods and services. Half of that activity is commercial, with the biggest growth occurring in “lifestyle media” (mostly satellite TV) and global positioning systems (GPS) satellites and their related equipment and service fees. But another 28 percent of total world spending is by the U.S. government.
When Americans think of the space program, they generally think of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s space shuttle flights, the international space station, and future trips to the moon and Mars. Despite that 1967 treaty, however, U.S. military leaders have been thinking about the possibility of weapons in space for a long time. And based on Space Foundation figures, budgets for warfare preparations and spying in space quietly add up to almost three times that of NASA. According to Caldicott and Eisendrath, the United States accounts for 95 percent of the world’s spending on militarization of space and owns more than half of all military satellites. The most basic space weaponry problem is the vulnerability of orbiting spacecraft. Satellites and other space objects not only have nowhere to hide; they move in fully predictable ways, making them vulnerable to attack at an adversary’s convenience. And satellites do more than provide crucial military intelligence — they also form the basis of communications systems that keep modern military forces in touch with remote commanders and civilian leaders.
According to a report from Rumsfeld’s group, “The loss of space systems that support military operations or collect intelligence would dramatically affect the way U.S. forces could fight.” Without space hardware and software, the military would be crippled — 70 percent of the bombs that struck Iraq during the Pentagon’s 2003 “Shock and Awe” campaign were satellite-guided. Back in 2000, China’s official Xinhua News Agency gave U.S. strategic planners reason to worry. A coyly “hypothetical” article predicted that “for countries that could never win a war with the United States by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking the U.S. space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice.”
In 1992, the U.S. Strategic Air Command, a warhorse of the nuclear age, was replaced by something called USSTRATCOM — the U.S. Strategic Command — that eventually would expand the old SAC mission to add responsibility for control of U.S. space weaponry. Since then, the country’s spending on space-related defensive and offensive systems has continued to increase — but it took off dramatically in 2000. Spending on missile defense has doubled since then, and the U.S. is now proposing to place missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic — a development that has infuriated many Europeans.
In January 2001, a year after the Xinhua article appeared, the group called the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization presented its report to Congress. Headed by Rumsfeld, whom President Bush would name as his defense secretary, the report asserted that the United States should prepare for the inevitable militarization of space. “We know from history that every medium — air, land, and sea — has seen conflict,” the commission reported. “Reality indicates that space will be no different. Given this virtual certainty, the U.S. must develop the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space — and ensure continuing superiority.”
Another reality: More than half of the Rumsfeld commission members had ties to the aerospace industry. And the report plainly reflected that connection, advising that “The U.S. Government needs to become a more reliable customer of commercial space products and services.” Five of the top space-weapon and missile-defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, SAIC, and General Dynamics — shelled out a total of $13 million in political campaign contributions from 2001 to 2006, according to the New-York based World Policy Institute. Congressional support for space weapons is bipartisan, led by a Space Power Caucus established in 2003. Lockheed Martin, for instance, spent just under $10 million in lobbying members of Congress and federal agencies in 2006. And individuals and political action committees associated with Lockheed put U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis and Fort Worth’s Kay Granger high on their campaign donations list. The company is the lead contractor on the XSS-11 anti-satellite system and a host of other space weapons. In Grand Prairie, its Lockheed Martin Missile and Fire Control, according to the company web site, develops and manufactures “advanced combat systems and missile, rocket, and space systems.”
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, of course, ramped up the space-war rhetoric. And USSTRATCOM was given a host of other missions, including those of the former Space Command and a new Global Strike Integration Command, which will wield space weapons if they’re ever fully deployed. In 2002, the Air Force undersecretary for military space acquisitions told The New York Times that “We haven’t reached the point of strafing and bombing from space,” but “we are exploring those possibilities.” When they aren’t talking about China, military leaders discuss the possibility of, say, Pakistan falling to Taliban types who might turn to “space jihad” — shooting a nuclear weapon into orbit and detonating it. The resulting electromagnetic pulse could disable spacecraft across a quarter of the Earth’s orbital space.
But many critics of the program think that defensive scenarios are just camouflage for the military’s desire for offensive weapons that the U.S. could use simply as an extension of its power, whether or not any other nation was threatening space war. The Rumsfeld commission noted that “Military space officials will have to develop new doctrines and concepts for offensive and defensive space operations … and other military uses of space.” Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the activist group Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, believes the country’s $9 billion missile-defense program is just a Trojan horse. “Missile defense brings in the money, but the real story is offensive, pre-emptive attack technologies for global strike,” he said. “That’s where the real action is.” Gagnon said that current U.S. space policy remains consistent with the aggressive stance of the Rumsfeld report, “although they have slacked off just a bit on their rhetoric.”
In September, the Times relayed a similar message from a former Pentagon official who said that space weapons are “still definitely part of the program, but they don’t emphasize it because the arms-control people come out of the woodwork.”
The current thinking of military and industry officials was revealed last month at the annual Strategic Space and Defense Conference in Omaha, where the exhibit hall was full of nerf-version giveaways promoting weapon systems and promotional art that looked like a combination of Spielberg, comic books, and Armageddon predictions. In his opening remarks, USSTRATCOM acting commander Lt. Gen. Robert Kehler (who, ironically, bears a slight resemblance to Peter Sellers’ amiable President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove), referred obliquely to China, which became almost a theme of the conference. Speaker after speaker described the feeling of vulnerability caused by that country’s Jan. 11 satellite destruction, equating it with the alarm caused by the Challenger and Columbia space-shuttle disasters and even the World Trade Center attacks. “In the past, we were the unique masters of the air and space domains. Today, that cannot be taken for granted,” said Air Force Lt. General Frank Klotz.
It fell to a civilian, Northrop Grumman Vice President Frederick Ricker, to offer a spine-stiffener to the military whiners: “If we can’t have sanctuary in space,” he said, “we can certainly have superiority.” Tim Rinne is state coordinator of Nebraskans for Peace, which holds demonstrations outside the space conference each October. With the generals’ and contractors’ drive to build weapons systems to shore up that superiority, he said, Omaha annually becomes “the most dangerous place on the face of the Earth.” The question is, what, if anything, will it take to convince Americans to support a philosophy that views space as just the next line of foxholes? It’s a problem that’s not gone unnoticed by the military-industrial planners.
A “Space Pearl Harbor” will be the only event able to galvanize the nation and cause the U.S. Government to act.
That was another conclusion of the Rumsfeld commission, one that made opponents wonder whether space-war enthusiasts might be willing to arrange such a Pearl Harbor if necessary. Caldicott and Eisendrath suggest in their book that the first deployment of space weapons could put the world on that path, by setting off a new and ruinously expensive arms race that could litter the Earth’s orbital space with enough debris to make it unusable for any civilian purpose — and possibly trigger a nuclear war. Just as with nuclear weapons, the authors suggested, owners of space weapons would end up in the classic “use ’em or lose ’em” position, with each new sign of danger adding to the pressure to use such weapons in a pre-emptive strike.
As for what might activate that hair trigger, most of the rhetoric at the conference focused on the so-called war on terror. But Klotz predicted that “Our next conflict may involve more traditional warfare against an adversary with more significant forces” — pointing at China, the country that seemed to be on everyone’s minds. Rinne, the peace activist, sees a near-obsession with the “terrestrial and celestial encirclement of China,” with no quarter given to diplomacy. “They simply are not going to allow China to become an economic or military rival in space,” he said. Michael Krepon and Christopher Clary of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think tank focused on finding peaceful solutions to national and international security concerns, have said the Rumsfeld commission was dead wrong in declaring war in space to be inevitable. In a major study funded by the center, of which Krepon is the founding president, they note that even in the darkest days of the Cold War, and despite President Reagan’s Star Wars program, neither the U.S. nor Soviet Union showed any eagerness to put weapons in space. Today, U.S. military dominance is so complete that taking the fight to space would add very little, while making all U.S. forces more vulnerable, Krepon and Clary assert.
The United Nations, supported by Canada, Russia, European Union members, and a long list of other nations, is trying desperately to pass a ban on space weaponry, but their efforts have been vigorously opposed by the Bush administration. “Arms control is not a viable solution for space,” an unnamed State Department official told Space News on the day the Chinese incident was announced. Or, as the Rumsfeld report put it, “The U.S. must be cautious of agreements … that may have the unintended consequence of restricting future activities in space.” Starting this year, USSTRATCOM’s activities in space will include keeping an eye not only on foreign foes but on you and me as well. Last spring, according to the Wall Street Journal, the government for the first time granted the Department of Homeland Security and other domestic law-enforcement agencies access to real-time, high-resolution images and data gathered by military intelligence satellites as they pass over America’s cities and countryside.
Indeed, after her talk at the space conference, Brig. Gen. Jennifer Napper, deputy commander for USSTRATCOM’s Global Network Operations, told reporters, “The FBI and CIA are in our operations center 24/7.” What are they doing there? No one on the outside can be sure. Possibly the space conference’s most surreal moment came at the start, in a bizarre opening ceremony that featured an hour-long performance by Three Dog Night. The early ’70s pop-rock legends seemed to step onto the stage out of some kind of time warp, singing about love, peace, and eco-consciousness, with the Pentagon brass and war contractors quietly applauding. But then the band did its minor hit “Liar,” the chorus of which had the whole group shouting the word “Liar!” three times into the audience, flooding the faces there with bright white lights at each repeat of the word. None of the uniforms or $500 suits stood in protest, but neither did they smile. Stan Cox is a Kansas writer. His book Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine will be published next spring by Pluto Books. A version of this story appeared earlier at alternet.com.