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Hostile space

November 15, 2004 By Philip Ball This article courtesy of Nature News.

Think-tanks in the United States are touting a hawkish attitude to space. It is time to remember that space is an international arena, not a potential battleground, says Philip Ball.

Galileo, a satellite system being developed by the European Space Agency, is due to reach full operational capacity in 2008 and some hope it will illustrate how space can be used for peaceful purposes.

Galileo will provide a global navigation system that, unlike the US-run Global Positioning System (GPS) or the Russian GLONASS network, will be under civilian rather than military control. It should help ships, aircraft and land-based transport systems to navigate and will operate a 'search and rescue' function for distress signals. Galileo will illustrate how space can be used for peaceful purposes that benefit humanity.

And yet, according to René Oosterlinck, head of navigation at the agency, "the United States has done everything it can to kill the project". Why? Because Galileo threatens to disrupt US dominance of space.

The GPS makes no guarantee of uninterrupted service for its non-military users: the US government can jam the civilian channel at will. The prospect of a European satellite-positioning network led the US deputy secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, to write to European defence ministers in December 2001, telling them in no uncertain terms how he disapproved of ESA's bid for independence. To French president Jacques Chirac, this opposition to Galileo revealed a wish that Europe remain a 'vassal', resembling the feudal landowners who, although relatively wealthy, were bound always to defer to their lord.

Control streak

No one could claim to be surprised by Wolfowitz's position. This was the man who, in 2000, helped to prepare the report1 "Rebuilding America's Defenses", published by the Project for the New American Century, a right-wing think-tank that aims "to promote American global leadership". The report argued that: "For the US armed forces to continue to assert military pre-eminence, control of space must be an essential element of our military strategy."

And in case anyone were to imagine that this meant simply the continued pursuit of missile defence systems, that is, Ronald Reagan's ill-fated Star Wars project, the report spelled out that "control of space" would mean thinking beyond purely defensive measures. Instead, it recommended "the application of force ... including but not limited to antimissile defenses and defensive systems". It asserted: "No system of missile defenses can be fully effective without placing sensors and weapons in space."

This is not mere sabre-rattling. "Rebuilding America's Defenses" was heavily influenced not just by Wolfowitz but also by the current vice-president Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary. Rumsfeld has invoked fears of a "space Pearl Harbor", if the United States does not take steps to "negate the hostile use of space against US interests". According to a report2 by the British think-tank Demos: "Several commentators have interpreted the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty in December 2001 as a first step towards the development and testing of a new generation of space weapons."

Freedom to attack

That attitude is spelled out in chilling terms in a US Air Force 'doctrine document' released last August3, entitled "Counterspace Operations". This states that space superiority means the "freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack".

Air Force undersecretary Peter Teets asks: "What will we do ten years from now when American lives are put at risk because an adversary chooses to leverage the Global Positioning System or perhaps the Galileo constellation to attack American forces with precision?"

"Controlling the high ground of space," says Teets, "will require us to think about denying the high ground to our adversaries."

One begins to wonder who these adversaries are. The counterspace operations report gives the impression that they could include anyone who dares to put a device of any sort into space. The document seems to argue that it is legitimate to undermine the space programme of any nation deemed to be an adversary of the United States. Satellites that provide essential weather-forecasting capability or communication with emergency services are all considered fair game.

Indeed, you don't need to be an enemy for your space resources to become a target. So if a stiff letter from Paul Wolfowitz fails to scupper Galileo, there are other measures...

Fight plan

What would this space-based weaponry look like? Another Air Force document4, the "Transformation Flight Plan", released in November 2003, lays out the proposed technology. Weapons may include items such as lasers guided by space-based mirrors "to achieve a broad range of effects from illumination to destruction" or bizarre "hypervelocity rod bundles" that have the capability to strike ground targets anywhere in the world.

Almost every element of this plan violates the spirit, and sometimes the letter, of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed by the United States, which states that space operations should have "peaceful purposes". "The exploration and use of outer space", it continues, "shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind... Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of occupation, or by any other means."

Scientific stand

Quite aside from violations of international agreements, scientists should be outraged by proposals to put weapons in space. Not only would such projects disrupt genuine space science (and probably deflect funding away from it), but they would turn a natural commons into a territorial battlefield.

We need voices to succeed that of Carl Sagan, who was vehemently opposed to the military domination of space. NASA must resist becoming the research and development arm of the US military. The European Space Agency must stand fast to its peaceful objectives.

Of course, military interests have always played a part in motivating and funding scientific research, but it seems the right moment for the scientific community to consider a professional code of conduct that will say when enough is enough.

In 1985, an appeal put forward by the Union of Concerned Scientists stated that "Outer space must remain free of any weapons," and should be preserved for "peaceful cooperation, exploration, and scientific discovery among all nations". Wouldn't this be a good time for that position to be adopted by all scientific bodies?


  1. Rebuilding America's Defenses.
  2. Mean M. & Wilsdon J. et al. Masters of the Universe, (2004).
  3. US Air Force Counterspace Operations., (Doctrine Document 2-2.12004).
  4. US Air Force Transformation Flight Plan, (2004).


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