Pentagon revives 'Star Wars' defense in space

Paul E. Flatin
Kyodo News Service -- December 20, 1999, Monday

A missile with a crude nuclear warhead lifts off from a launch pad in North Korea, heading for the West coast of the United States. Suddenly, a powerful laser beam fired from an orbiting U.S. satellite burns into the rising missile and within seconds the missile and its deadly payload are obliterated.

The familiar scenario of a 'Star Wars'-like defense of the U.S. from space remains a daydream for Defense Department planners, but recent Defense Department reports and interviews with officials make it clear that the Pentagon has very serious plans to deploy such a space-based laser and other orbiting weapons by the year 2020.

In July, Secretary of Defense William Cohen issued Pentagon's first 'Space Policy' paper since 1989. The new doctrine calls for the U.S. to develop space capabilities to 'defend against hostile actions (and) counter space systems and services used for hostile purposes.'

The lead U.S. agency for space defense, the U.S. Space Command, an arm of the U.S. Air Force based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has an even more detailed report, the 'Long Range Plan.' It spells out in five-year intervals how the U.S. military will evolve its space technology to maintain 'control of space' into 2040.

For now, however, the Space Command is focused on the near-term. Within the next five to 10 years, the Pentagon wants to have the means to both protect its essential military communications and spy satellites and destroy or disable a hostile nation's space equipment with ground or space-based weapons.

'Space is going to be absolutely critical to all U.S. military operations,' Space Command spokesman Maj. Perry Nouis told Kyodo News in a phone interview. 'It is today, and it is going to be even more so in the future.'

Pentagon officials already perceive China as the most likely adversary it will face in the new space race. A successful test of an unmanned Chinese spacecraft in late November is viewed by the Pentagon as a clear sign Beijing intends to compete with the U.S. and Russia in space.

'Clearly (China) is on the rise as a space power...and we know they are a potential adversary...I don't think there is any question about it,' Nouis said.

But the Pentagon's move to increase the militarization of space is expected to cause intense international controversy because it appears to violate treaties advocating the peaceful use of space. Russia and China are particularly sensitive to the U.S. making space a theater of 'combat operations.'

One leading U.S. critic, John Pike, director of the American Federation of Scientists, noted, 'We're the only ones who have anything worth shooting at -- I don't see an enemy for us in space in the foreseeable future.'

However, Pentagon officials contend that there is a worrisome proliferation of space-based capabilities around the globe.

According to the Space Command's Long Range Plan, potential adversaries like China may already possess lasers of their own which could blind the optical sensors of U.S. spy satellites.

'Space capabilities are becoming absolutely essential for military operations, national commerce and everyday life,' the report states.

'In fact, space is emerging as a military and economic center of gravity for our information-dependent forces, businesses and society -- life on earth is becoming inextricably linked to space.'

Yet with no Chinese spy satellites currently orbiting the globe, critic Pike remains unconvinced that a potential Chinese threat is reason enough to pay the nearly astronomical costs of pursuing space-based weapons.

'It's easy to see that the contractors just want more money, the engineers just want to put together more cool toys, and the Air Force officers just want to get promoted,' Pike said. 'These plans can help all of them achieve those goals.'

While Pike disputes the wisdom of developing space-based weapons systems by 2020, he acknowledges the usefulness of U.S. space policy's more immediate five-year goal -- making better surveillance and communications satellites to aid military operations on the ground.

'There are those in the Pentagon who want to fight real wars, and see these advanced space systems as vital to helping them win wars with higher confidence and speed -- this is the visionary group,' Pike declared.

Such satellites gave the U.S. military an edge in its 1991 triumph over Iraq in the Gulf War. Military experts around the globe were stunned by the precision of U.S. bombs guided to their targets by Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) orbiting high above the earth.

More recently, last spring the U.S. led its NATO allies to victory in the Kosovo conflict with Serbia by using tens of thousands of more modern GPS-guided bombs. Highly advanced cameras and radars on U.S. intelligence satellites used together with navigation from the GPS network made it possible for the U.S. to bomb the Serbian military into submission with air power alone -- an unprecedented feat.

And according to Space Command officials, in the Kosovo conflict the U.S. also came close to using an existing high-powered, ground-based laser at an army base in White Sands, New Mexico, to destroy a communications satellite broadcasting Serb propaganda.

But the U.S. stopped short because of the threat of space debris to its own orbiting systems, and potentially heavy political and economic fallout. Instead the Pentagon convinced the satellite's European owner to make the satellite 'temporarily unavailable' to the Serbs.

Space Command officials admit the ongoing planning for a space-based defense is essentially a 'scaled-back' version of the Strategic Defense Initiative, more popularly known as 'Star Wars' -- a defense plan launched by then President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s.

'We've come a long way with the technology and we're beginning to prove some of the theories first put forth back then,' said Space Command spokesman Maj. Nouis.

'A lot of scientists were discounting it as not possible, but we're seeing that some of this is possible and we'll see more as we go along.'

Copyright 1999 Kyodo News Service
All rights reserved.