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See Inside August 2005

Great Teller's Ghost

SPACED-BASED LASER



GEORGE RETSECK
Take the high ground! The American soldier has been admonished to do so countless times during the nation's hard-fought military history. With strong input from the U.S. Air Force, the Bush administration is reportedly pushing that dictate to the final frontier. The military use of space has proceeded for decades with the deployment of spy, communications and navigation satellites. The new administration directive would move the U.S. from space militarization to "weaponization," opening the way to both offensive and defensive arms in the firmament. The policy makes no sense on technical, geopolitical or economic grounds.

A 2001 commission led by incoming Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a report that contended that the U.S. should maintain superiority in space by protecting its own satellites, by denying the use of space to adversaries, and by retaining the ability to attack targets from or within space. The directive would codify in policy at least some of those recommendations, which have already served to guide the air force in its planning efforts.

For the past 10 years, the military has disbursed billions in R&D on space weaponry--and more of the same is on the drawing board. The wish list would make Edward Teller's ghost proud. Take two examples: one, a space-based laser, would focus a laser's energy on ground- or space-based enemy targets. "Rods from God"--hypervelocity rods made of tungsten or uranium--would be hurled from an orbiting platform to penetrate underground or hardened targets. Unfortunately, the feasibility of these technologies has not been demonstrated in any conclusive way.

Installation of such weapons could initiate a needless extraterrestrial arms race and leave us less secure. Russia has already indicated that it will retaliate if any country places weapons in space. Sophisticated death-star lasers are vulnerable to low-tech counterresponses, such as $6 smoke grenades that can create an impenetrable haze. Protecting vital communications and surveillance assets can be accomplished more effectively by modest measures, such as having unmanned aerial vehicles at the ready that can supply the communications or espionage capabilities to replace a battle-damaged satellite.

From its current position of strength, the best strategic course for the U.S. is to initiate a process that would affirm the use of space as a global commons where all guns are checked at the border of the mesosphere, 50 miles up. A good first step would be to pledge to abide by that provision of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which the administration withdrew from in 2002, that forswears space-based missile defenses. Otherwise, perhaps the greatest hope against realization of yet another episode of Star Wars is the astronomical expenditure--in the hundreds of billions of dollars--that the federal government would confront, at a time of deficits and underfunding of other security needs such as protecting our seaports. We can only hope that the overburdening financial requirements will relegate rods from God to the realm of think tanks and military colleges for a long time to come.

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