Politics & Policy

“Star Wars”

Given the reaction to this week’s report that the Air Force has requested, and President Bush will probably issue, a national-security directive on the military use of space, you might be excused for thinking America was about to build a Death Star. We don’t know yet what the Air Force wants–but that hasn’t stopped the usual disciples of peace from bristling at it, whatever it is. This is a good time, then, to consider the merits of a bold space-weapons program.

Not all technologies the Air Force might seek are Star Wars fare. They might include, for example, satellite-jamming systems and satellites that could target and destroy other satellites, which some defense experts think could be operational in 18 months. Other programs, such as a space plane that could attack targets halfway around the globe in 45 minutes, are farther down the horizon.

The debate over such technologies is closely related to the debate over missile defense. Critics of the Air Force’s space aims get especially upset about space-based interceptors, which, unlike ground- and sea-based interceptors, could target a missile during its slow ascent over enemy territory. Worries about costs and technological barriers are raised, but they shouldn’t close the door even to research and testing.

Moral squeamishness about “weaponizing” space is even harder to understand. If North Korea or Iran launched a ballistic missile at us or one of our allies, that would pretty well weaponize space. The question is whether we would be able to defend ourselves.

“Further weaponization of space

is probably inevitable.”

Any notion that space is now a pristine, weapon-free zone is pure fantasy. The irresistible power of our military depends, to a large extent, precisely on its use of space. What is a GPS satellite that guides a precision bomb to its target, if not the component of a weapon system? Even the Clinton administration’s 1996 National Space Policy–which the New York Times tendentiously describes as “emphasizing a more pacific use of space”–says that “national-security space activities shall contribute to U.S. national security by,” among other things, “countering, if necessary, space systems and services used for hostile purposes.”

In any case, further weaponization of space is probably inevitable. An instructive analogy could be drawn with the high seas: Although never the sovereign domain of any one nation, rival powers nonetheless vied for control of them, and it was Britain’s naval prowess that allowed it to enjoy unrivaled dominance during the 19th century. It’s naïve to think that today’s powers won’t compete for control of space in much the same way. Does anyone doubt that China, for example, will have moral scruples about deploying space weapons as it is becomes able to do so?

Fortunately, most countries are not yet able to do so, and the U.S. has a vast technological advantage over any potential foe. Now is the time to channel that advantage toward a benevolent American domination of space. Doing so may not be popular, but it will make us–and the world–safer.

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