"We came in peace for all mankind."
-Neil Armstrong, July 21, 1969
In his 1966 Hugo-winner The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, sci-fi author Robert Heinlein created a compelling image: a moon-based catapult for transporting mineral resources down to earth being instead used as a weapon, flinging kinetic-energy laden rocks down the gravity well at a domineering home planet.
...the narrator and Professor La Paz, a revolutionary hero and leader, travel to Earth to negotiate independence for Luna, but are rebuffed. They return to the moon, and utilise its position at the top of the Earth's gravity well to drop masses of rock onto targets on all the main land-masses below them.
Fortunately, it's only fiction; such a thing couldn't happen today. Particularly since there is a UN treaty, ratified by 98 countries and signed by an additional 27, whose language ensures that space is reserved exclusively for peaceful purposes.
Well....not so fast. The treaty in question, the "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States
in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies", more commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, is a good deal more vague on this subject than many realize. To summarize, the following are the relevant passages:
1. The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on for the benefit and in the interests of all mankind.
2. Outer space and celestial bodies are free for exploration and use by all States on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law.
3. Outer space and celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
4. The activities of States in the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation and understanding.
5. States bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, whether carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried on in conformity with the principles set forth in the present Declaration. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the State concerned. When activities are carried on in outer space by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with the principles set forth in this Declaration shall be borne by the international organization and by the States participating in it.
6. In the exploration and use of outer space, States shall be guided by the principle of co- operation and mutual assistance and shall conduct all their activities in outer space with due regard for the corresponding interests of other States. If a State has reason to believe that an outer space activity or experiment planned by it or its nationals would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other States in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, it shall undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment. A State which has reason to believe that an outer space activity or experiment planned by another State would cause potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space may request consultation concerning the activity or experiment.
Clearly, a vaguely worded statement of principles, with holes big enough to drive a Star Destroyer through. The consensus in the international law community today is that it basically bans only deployment of nuclear weapons on the moon or in orbit -- everything else is still fair game.
Furthermore, after more than 40 years, the Outer Space Treaty -- relatively wishy-washy to begin with -- is getting a little creaky. Far from being a magisterial agreement whose tenets ensure the peaceful use of space, today it faces difficulty even mandating the most mundane of tasks, keeping the spaceways safe from errant-vessel damaging cosmic garbage.
Like other environments, space is damaged by human activity, primarily through the creation of space debris. But space is fragile like no other environment. Traveling at speeds of 7.5 km/second, even the smallest piece of space debris can be deadly for spacecraft. While outer space may seem to provide boundless room for operations, the limited availability of suitable orbits coupled with growing contamination threaten sustainable use. In the first six weeks of 2007, the amount of large space debris (larger than 10 cm in diameter) in popular orbits increased by over 20 per cent due to the Chinese anti-satellite test on 11 January and the explosion of a Russian rocket body on 19 February: two of the worst manmade debris-creating events in history.
The problem is severe enough that the UN has had to create a searchable, on-line index of objects launched into space.
But the greatest threat in space is not having your solar panel punched through by an errant Soyuz booster. There are more worrisome dangers than space junk
One of the most pressing is the emergence of a new space race -- this time a military one -- triggered by the Bush doctrine and its insistence on the right of American pre-emptive intervention, even in outer space. Many observers are convinced that this principle lays the groundwork for a new era of nationalistic competeition on the highest frontier, with Russia, the U.S. and China leading the contenders.
The outlines of the policy were made clear in October of 2006, when the U.S. issued what was called a "bold claim to the final frontier":
In a muscular overhaul of policy, the US president outlines the importance of space to the national interest, saying its domination is as crucial to America's defences as air or sea power.
The order also opposes the establishment of arms control treaties that would restrict US access to space, or set limits on its use of space. It calls for the development of space capabilities to support US intelligence and defence initiatives.
The text of the policy itself reads as follows:
"The United States will preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to US national interests," the strategy says.
It neatly skirted the finer points of the Space Treaty by placing its emphasis on protecting U.S. capabilities, but it nevertheless cames across as a bellicose warning to other nations and placed a primacy on U.S. freedom to operate beyond the atmosphere as it sees fit.
It was posturing that other aspiring great powers could not ignore. Less than three months later, China broadcast its reaction in rather spectacular fashion, conducting its own antisatellite 'test' by shooting down one of its own weather satellites -- a provocative move clearly designed to demonstrate its capability.
In the U.S., Vice-President Dick Cheney responded, arguing that such actions "were not consistent with [China's] stated aim of a peaceful rise as a global power."
Not content with official tut-tutting in the news magazines, in early 2008, the U.S. made a more concrete statement.
After spy satellite USA 193 went out of control, space honchos claimed it would have to be destroyed in order that it not become a hazard to human life.
Because the failure of the satellite occurred so early in its planned mission the fuel tank used to maneuver the satellite for intelligence missions remained tanked up on hydrazine rocket fuel. Washington claimed that it was likely that the fuel tank would survive re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere and could well have, albeit the chances were remote, impact on populated areas. It was feared that the rocket fuel could disperse and infect the respiratory system of anybody near the impact zone, perhaps even fatally.
The solution? Shoot it down, using a "kinetic energy kill vehicle from an SM-3 interceptor launched from an Aegis naval vessel in the Pacific Ocean"
And a masterful solution it was. Not only would it serve to break up the fuel tank "leading the fuel to escape before re-entry", it would also be a very symbolic statement in support of the space facet of the Bush Doctrine, transmitting an unmistakable message to nations who, like China, would presume to infringe on U.S. mastery of space.
Not everyone was convinced by the pretext.
..."the shot" used the Pentagon's space identification, tracking and targeting systems to co-ordinate the destruction of the satellite...it's important that we understand that the Bush administration's stated reasons for "the shot" can't be taken seriously. Given that the fuel tank was most likely not heat shielded it should not have survived re-entry. Even if by remote chance it were to survive re-entry, the pressure and heat of re-entry should have vaporized its hydrazine rocket fuel.
-Spero News, April 14
Today, other nations are following the American lead. On Friday, May 9, Japanese legislators voted to reverse a 30-year ban on the use of miltary applications in Japanese space.
Lawmakers said that Japan still opposed putting weapons into space but that the 1969 restrictions had stifled innovation, hurting Japanese companies...advocates also said that Japan wanted to remove any legal obstacles to building more advanced spy satellites.
Meanwhile, another spacefaring nation -- Russia -- announced earlier this year its own plans to protect its satellite constellation via ground-based ASAT defense systems.
Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov set his defense department the task of developing an integrated system of air, space and missile defense. The air defense concern Almaz-Antei has been named the main developer of the project. Ivanov said that the project is "very serious, expensive, and unique in the use of innovation technology." A timetable has been set for its implementation within the arms program up to 2015. The ministries and departments involved in the project have been ordered to draft a comprehensive program for the development of a unified system of air defense missiles. This will include a mobile system of air and space defense currently being developed by Almaz.
In the wake of these developments, U.S. and European weapons contractors and aerospace have not-so-quietly begun reaping significant contract awards as an urgency not seen since the days of Apollo grips the development of space weapons.
Most recently (December 2007), Lockheed Martin test-flew a prototype space plane intended to prove concepts for reusable launch systems. While it did so teamed with a commercial launch provider, and comments at the time of the test were quick to point to potential commercial space applications for the vehicle, it seems clear that the development funds came from the Pentagon.
Why the relatively sudden insistence on U.S. dominance in space? Why now?
To some degree, the answer can be found in the effects of the September 11 terror attacks. The military was as jolted from its complacency as much as anyone else, and the spectre of relatively underequipped foes using 'asymmetric warfare' techniques to offset American military advantages added a sense of urgency to its drive to 'transform' itself into a flexible, 21st century force.
Another part of the answer may be found in a paper by Everett Dolman, Associate Professor of Comparative Military Studies at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. In U.S. Military Transformation and Weapons in Space, speaking of how major states could use asymmetric methods to combat U.S. might, Dolman writes:
...what if an enemy of democratic liberalism should suddenly acquire the means to place quickly and cheaply multiple weapons into orbit? The advantages gained from controlling the high ground of space would accrue to it as surely as to any liberal state, and the concomitant loss of military power from the denial of space to our already-dependent military force could cause the immediate demise of the extant international system.
In what must have been music to the ears of the preemptive strike fetishists in the Bush Administration, Dolman urged an immediate effort to strike first; to take control of space before anyone else can.
Seizing the initiative and securing low-Earth orbit now, while the US is unchallenged in space, would do much to stabilize the international system and prevent an arms race is space. From low-Earth orbit (LEO), the enhanced ability to deny any attempt by another nation to place military assets in space, or to readily engage and destroy terrestrial ASAT capacity, makes the possibility of large scale space war and or military space races less
likely, not more. Why would a state expend the effort to compete in space with a superpower that has the extraordinary advantage of holding securely the highest ground at the top of the gravity well?
In other words, become King of the Hill first, before any of the bad guys can intrude, upsetting America's military advantage by wreaking havoc on the delicate web of communications interlinks that powers its extremely information-intensive method of warfare.
Despite Dolman's conviction that getting there first will forestall other nations wanting to spend the money required to match U.S. capabilities -- a Mutually Assured Destruction, Cold War kind of logic that presupposes that states (never mind non-state actors) will always act within the bounds of self-interest and logic, not everyone agrees.
In 2005, several months before the rollout of the new U.S. strategy, Theresa Hitchens of the Centre for Defense Information warned that:
...further moves by the Pentagon to weaponise space would spur reactions from China and other countries which viewed such efforts as inherently belligerent. Space weapons would be very risky, expensive and could potentially trigger an accidental nuclear war, she added.
It would appear Ms Hitchens was right about the first part of her objection; one hopes that she is wrong about the second. But at this point, her record seems to be better than that of Mr Dolman. And she's not alone. In March, the New York Times quoted Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.:
The global economic system would probably collapse, along with air travel and communications. Your cellphone wouldn't work. Nor would your A.T.M. and that dashboard navigational gizmo you got for Christmas. And preventing an accidental nuclear exchange could become much more difficult.
David Wright, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Wired Magazine in 2004 that increased space weaponization may open a Pandora's Box of unintended consequences for the U.S., weakening its hold on space rather than strengthening it, and noting that as the country with the most satellites, America is the country gambling the greatest stakes.
...it legitimizes systems that the U.S. has the most to lose from. Other countries could start pursuing long-taboo space weapons efforts. And while countries like China don't have the technical sophistication of the United States, they already have the capabilities to hurt us in space -- medium range missiles, and nuclear warheads."
The pressure to engage in a space arms race -- along with the massive spending bleed-out that would be associated with such a highly developmental effort -- is unlikely to be experienced only by the Chinese and Russians. Some of America's allies will also be swept along for the ride. Australia -- George Bush's 'sherriff' in the Pacific, is one example. An analysis piece in Enerpub notes that the Australian government, in pursuing acquisition of the SM-3 missile -- the one fired from the Aegis Missile Cruiser to demonstrate its own ASAT capability -- had sold the capabilitiy on the grounds that it was "defensive".
Brendan Nelson (then the Australian defense minister and now the country's opposition leader in Parliament) last year mandated a Defense Department study, which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has inherited, of the possibility of equipping the Australian Navy with SM-3 interceptors for Ballistic Missile Defense in Northeast Asia. The Bush administration's recent demonstrated the offensive capabilities of missile defense in general and of the SM-3 interceptor in particular. Barely a week after "the shot," the Rudd administration, following the U.S.-Australia "AusMin" defense talks, announced its support for Ballistic Missile Defense and a desire to deepen Australia's participation. This would most likely take the very form proposed by Brendan Nelson. Washington's anti-satellite missile test must complicate matters for strategic planners in Canberra because an Australian SM-3 capability was sold on the basis that it would have no strategic effect on China. But "the shot" has blown apart this rhetoric.
Japan, meanwhile, currently operates the Aegis system used in the "shot" on its Kongo-class destroyers, and even prior to its vote to remove restrictions on military applications in space, agreed to co-develop the next-generation SM-3 jointly with the U.S.
On the plus side, this drive for increased space warfare capability drives more and more employment in the aerospace industry, an economic sector that -- prior to 9/11 -- was showing acute signs of stress.
One of those firms is Boeing, which, in 1996, acquired McDonnell Douglas. That aerospace legend was in turn founded by James S. McDonnell, a space and aviation pioneer, and as founder of McDonnell-Douglas, a great recipient himself of Pentagon largesse. But McDonnell was also a bit of a mystic, which is why many of his aircraft sported names like Banshee, Phantom, Demon, Goblin and Voodoo. And with his mystical streak came a philosophical bent, which once caused him to famously remark:
"The creative conquest of space will serve as a wonderful substitute for war."
- James S. McDonnell
Well, a conquest may be underway. And it may even arguably be creative.
But it does not yet appear to be a substitute for war.