Space: The Final Battlefield?

ByABC News
March 26, 2004, 3:20 PM

Mar. 30 -- 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 weapons.

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."

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"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 September 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.