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The Times (London) January 1, 2001, Monday

Bush's nominee could start arms race in space

Ian Brodie in Washington

GEORGE W. BUSH's hawkish choice to run the Pentagon has declared that he will make defence of America's assets in space a priority, a path that could lead to technology being developed to attack and defend satellites in orbit.

Donald Rumsfeld's support for protecting US satellites is in addition to his enthusiasm for building a system of national missile defence. Indeed, the two aims are closely linked and could provoke controversy abroad over a militarily expansionist America.

In Washington, the sweep of Mr Rumsfeld's plans has some worried that the Bush Administration could begin an arms race in space, while others are convinced that such protection is long overdue.Members of the Armed Forces see an opportunity for expanding work they have already undertaken, much of in secret, to perfect chemical lasers as weapons for destroying hostile aircraft, missiles or satellites.

Mr Rumsfeld served as Defence Secretary under President Ford in the 1970s and critics say that he is locked into a Cold War mentality. His supporters, most notably Mr Bush, believe that his planning is perfectly suited to a world threatened by such missile-building "rogue" states as North Korea and the increasing risk that weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Mr Rumsfeld was chairman of a commission that built the case for a national missile defence. In addition, according to The Washington Post, he has been leading a commission of inquiry into threats to US satellites, a vital link for spying from space as well as for military and civilian communications. According to a Rumsfeld colleague, the satellite report, expected later this month, will endorse "US control of space, including defending our own satellites and engaging those of any enemy".

The idea of armaments in space could lead to a new version of President Reagan's "Star Wars" plan for space-based interceptor missiles, which was too complex to be practical.

In the view of nations such as Russia and China, the issues of a national missile defence and launching arms into space are indistinguishable. If the US builds a missile shield, "space will become a weapons base and battlefield", Sha Zukang, of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said last summer. "Since other big powers will not look on unconcerned, this will inevitably mean the extension of the arms race into space."

John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org and an opponent of space weapons, said that some Republicans in Congress who favoured developing anti-satellite weapons and lasers believed that the US should also consider establishing a separate space force, "much as we have a separate Air Force".

Work on perfecting chemical lasers has been conducted far from the public gaze at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico under the direction of the US Army's Space and Missile Defence Command and in conjunction with the Israeli Army. Last summer the high-energy beams, containing a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, potassium peroxide and chlorine, destroyed a series of short-range Katyusha rockets in flight. The army scientists also used a ground-based laser to hit an ageing US military satellite, a test of considerable significance that had not been cleared with the White House, according to The Washington Post.

Within eight years, the US Army hopes to have seven Boeing 747s in the air, armed with lasers and capable of shooting down enemy missiles from hundreds of miles away. The next step could be laser-firing satellites, a much-derided idea that was part of Mr Reagan's "Star Wars" concept.


Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Limited