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December 23, 2006

Win the Space Race by Not Running It


by Frida Berrigan
Foreign Policy in Focus

Lately, the Bush administration has been trying to play nice on the global stage – emphasizing collaboration with other countries on issues like nuclear proliferation and the "war on terror." But the Bush administration's obsession with domination and control keeps cropping up – most recently in its new space policy, the first new statement of U.S. objectives in outer space to be issued in 10 years. Released quietly on the Friday before Columbus Day, in a move designed to generate little or no media attention, that policy can be summed up in three words: mine, mine, mine.

The 10-page document lays out a scheme focused on establishing, defending and enlarging U.S. control over space resources, arguing for "unhindered" U.S. rights in space that are actively hostile to the concept of collective security enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The opening asserts, "freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power." Alongside earlier documents like the U.S. Space Command's Vision for 2020 – which articulated a stance of "full spectrum dominance" and insisted that "space superiority is emerging as an essential element of battlefield success and future warfare" – this new policy can been interpreted as an opening shot in the race to militarize space.

The administration also throws in some phrases to appeal to Star Trek fans and internationalists. The United States "will seek to cooperate with other nations in the peaceful use of outer space" and "is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity." But these Captain Kirk-worthy sentiments immediately are contradicted when "peaceful purposes" is clarified to include "U.S. defense and intelligence related activities in pursuit of national interests." Five of the seven United States policy goals mention "national security" and/or "defending our interests."

The space policy is clearest when it is explaining why international laws do not apply. For example, the policy states that the Bush administration "Will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space." Space joins global warming, nuclear proliferation and the arms trade as areas where the administration has opted for a unilateralist approach backed by military superiority over an internationalist approach embracing collective security and mutual benefit.

Soon after the policy was released, Robert Luaces, U.S. Representative to the U.N. General Assembly on National Space Policy, tried to reassure the world that the United States isn't trying to weaponize space. He said "One, there is no arms race in space. Two; there is no prospect for one. Three; the United States will protect its access to and use of space."

This statement is belied by U.S. military funding for space projects. According to the Government Accountability Office, Pentagon funding for military space operations will total $20 billion in 2007. Additionally, a Stimson Center comparison of U.S. and world spending found that the United States expends almost 90 percent of the total global spending on military-related activities in space.

There is an arms race in space, but so far the United States is the only country in the running – devoting millions to systems like the Common Aero Vehicle, which is envisioned as a "hypersonic glide vehicle" to "dispense conventional weapons, sensors and payloads worldwide from and through space within one hour" of being fired. The Common Aero was given $33.4 million in funding.

Space-invested nations like Russia, China and India will accelerate their programs to catch up. Other countries may not field their own satellites but can perfect methods of bringing ours down, making many of the space-dependent technologies we take for granted – from accu-weather forecasts to cell phone communication to air traffic control – vulnerable to attack.

The only way to win the space arms race is not to run it. And given that problems right here on earth are bedeviling U.S. and world leaders, striking out into the vast and uncharted regions of war in space seems like a very, very bad idea.

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