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The Houston Chronicle May 19, 2005

Space weapons report prompts evasive moves

By Julie Mason

WASHINGTON - The White House distanced itself Wednesday from a report that it was considering developing new weapons in space, but left open the possibility of future programs to protect U.S. satellites.

The somewhat contradictory stance came as the Bush administration works to finish a draft of a new national space policy. Spokesman Scott McClellan said the policy would take into account "the threats and challenges" to maintaining U.S. space capabilities.

"The policy that we're talking about is not looking at weaponizing space," McClellan said. "I expect it's likely to continue to emphasize the sovereignty of space systems and the right of free passage of those space systems."

Some analysts, however, noting the support of both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for space-based weapons programs, predicted a concurrent push for developing such systems.

"The idea of a greater movement toward space weaponry might be said to have been on the horizon since the beginning of this administration," said Karl Mueller, a political scientist and national security expert at Rand Corp., an independent research organization.

Second term and beyond

But putting weapons in space faces several immediate hurdles, Mueller noted. Among other things, the costs are prohibitive, the science is untested and world opinion is generally against it.

"I would imagine there would be continued efforts to develop programs in this area over the course of the next term and beyond," Mueller said. "Some of this might take the form of things we think of as space weapons, the others would cover space control."

Responding to questions about reports detailing the Air Force's interest in developing space weapons, McClellan said the forthcoming national space policy is likely to address national security issues, but from a more defensive standpoint.

"I talked about the importance of protecting our space systems. Obviously, that's something we have to look at. And there are changes that have occurred over the last eight or nine years, and there are countries that have taken an interest in space," he said. "And they have looked at things that could, or technologies that could, threaten our space systems."

Space has become integral to U.S. military operations, which rely on satellites for targeting, reconnaissance, tracking and communication.

Other countries also use satellite technology. Proponents of space weapons say that opens a new front and new vulnerabilities in wartime.

Opponents say development of space weapons could provoke countries such as China to develop their own weapons systems and spark another costly arms race.

Limited by physics

John Pike, an expert on defense and space policy and director of GlobalSecurity.org, said work on new space-based weapons systems has been going on for years and is separate from the national space policy.

He estimated the Pentagon has spent $130 billion in the past two decades researching and developing space weaponry. Asked what's stopping deployment, Pike said, "physics."

"There are a lot of things that are describable where the physics doesn't make any sense," Pike said.

Putting weapons systems into orbit presents its own challenges, he said, since a weapon would only be in proper position for a short time each day. And land-based weapons that could pierce through space also are an untested and expensive undertaking.

At the same time, Pike noted, concern over the nuclear aspirations of nations such as North Korea could give new momentum to proponents of such programs.

McClellan dismissed a suggestion that the new policy would represent a significant shift that could open the door for deploying space weapons.

"We believe in the peaceful exploration of space, and there are treaties in place and we continue to abide by those treaties," he said.

 


Copyright 2005, The Houston Chronicle