Shooting Stars

ByMarc Lallanilla

March 30, 2004 — -- For all of human history, people have looked at the stars with a sense of wonder. More recently, some U.S. military planners have looked skyward and seen something very different -- the next battlefield.

While the military's presence in space stretches back decades, now there appears to be a new emphasis. Officials in the Bush administration and the Department of Defense are actively pursuing an agenda calling for the unprecedented weaponization of space.

The first real step in that direction appears to be coming in the form of a little-noticed weapons program at the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. The agency has now earmarked $68 million in 2005 for something called the Near Field Infrared Experiment.

The NFIRE satellite is primarily designed to gather data on exhaust plumes from rockets launched from Earth, and defense officials claim it is therefore designed as a defensive, rather than offensive, weapon.

But the satellite will also contain a smaller "kill vehicle," a projectile that takes advantage of the kinetic energy of objects traveling through low-Earth orbit (which move at several times the speed of a bullet) to disable or destroy an oncoming missile or another orbiting satellite.

As one senior government official and defense expert described the program, which has seen cost-related delays and increased congressional scrutiny: "We're crossing the Rubicon into space weaponization."

"A lot of folks in the Air Force are leery of lobbing weapons into space, so they want to creep up on this issue," added the official, who asked to remain unnamed. "It's very hard to kill anything in the Missile Defense Agency budget -- it's politically protected."

The missile agency was reborn from the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks with a mission to develop integrated missile defense systems, including the use of space-based platforms.

But the agency's program is far from the only effort to bring weapons to space.

A wide-ranging outline of possible weaponization came from the U.S. Air Force last November. That Transformation Flight Plan outlines planned weapons programs, including air-launched anti-satellite missiles, laser strike weapons and metal projectiles called "hypervelocity rod bundles" to hit ground targets from space.

The USAF weapons programs are, however, still in the conceptual phase and not yet budgeted for development.

"There are two paths and we're at a crossroads now," warns one critic of such efforts. Says Laura Grego, space weapons expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, "Space is a beautiful research laboratory above the atmosphere. Putting that in danger to fulfill a Star Wars fantasy doesn't make sense."

The militarization of space is nothing new. After the former Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the U.S. military began to develop and deploy satellites for communications and reconnaissance.

By 1978, the military deployed the first global positioning system satellite, a technology now widely used for both military and commercial purposes. GPS -- which has provided for the military what Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Hays, executive editor of Joint Force Quarterly, describes as a "radical improvement and a kind of quantum leap in the use of space" -- is but one example of how satellites are part of the daily lives of Americans, going far beyond satellite TV and weather forecasts.

With that ubiquity in mind, the current administration has been building its emphasis on space-based weapons since even before President Bush took office.

Shortly before his appointment as secretary of defense, for instance, Donald Rumsfeld chaired a blue-ribbon commission investigating the role of space in national security. It concluded in January 2001 that the likelihood of an attack on U.S. space systems needed to be taken seriously to prevent another "space Pearl Harbor."

Land, sea and air have seen conflict, the report noted, asserting space will be no different. "Given this virtual certainty, the U.S. must develop the means to both deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space."

The report remains consistent with the Defense Department's current position on weapons in space, a spokesperson confirmed.

But the idea of weapons in space is greeted coldly by some.

"Weapons in space are not inevitable. If it were, it would have happened already," argued the senior defense expert, adding, "We should instead be taking the lead to make [weapons] agreements with other countries."

Indeed, other nations have moved for the non-militarization of space. As early as 1967, for example, the United Nations brokered the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the use of weapons of mass destruction in space. The United States is a signatory to the treaty.

Summarizing the differences between the United States and European views on space was Jean-Jacques Dordain, head of the European Space Agency, who said in a recent interview: "For the U.S., space is an instrument of domination -- information domination and leadership. Europe should be proposing a different model -- space as a public good."

Criticism of the U.S. plans to weaponize space is not limited to Europeans. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Defense Information, a non-governmental organization founded by retired senior U.S. military offices, said in a 2002 report, "Space is already 'militarized' by both military and commercial satellites. The only practical place to draw the line today is space weaponization."

Concluded the report: "The United States has and will continue to have more interests in space assets both civil and military than most countries, and it will retain a net benefit if no one [including the United States itself] has weapons in space."

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