Timing is everything. The Bush administration declassified the text of its new National Space Policy on October 6, 2006, just a week before the topic of preventing a space arms race was scheduled to come up before the United Nations. The document the White House unveiled marked the first time in nearly ten years that the U.S. government has updated its official space policy. It makes homeland security a primary component of the new strategy. Another cornerstone: complete rejection of the international consensus on the use of space.
Among other things the policy states: "The U.S. will oppose the development of new legal regimes … that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of outer space." Sure enough, on October 25 the United States was the only country to vote against a draft text on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) at the United Nations General Assembly's annual First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.
"We see no value in proposals such as the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, commonly referred to as PAROS," said Robert G. Joseph, State Department's under-secretary for arms control and international security, explaining the U.S. position in a December speech before the Marshall Institute. "There is no arms race in space and we see no signs of one emerging." The UN text, which reaffirms the need for preventing an outer space arms race and recommends the reinforcement of international laws on the issue, passed anyway. A total of 166 nations voted for the measure; the United States was the only country to vote against. (Israel abstained.)
The vote was typical, and revealing. While the Bush Administration insists it remains committed to the exploration and use of space "by all nations for peaceful purposes," groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the World Policy Institute, and the Henry L. Stimson Center worry that the annotated space policy is little more than a precursor to a full-fledged space weaponization program.
In fact, despite its peace rhetoric, the administration has done little to hide its true intentions. "As long as the potential for such attacks [on U.S. space assets] remains, our government will continue to consider the possible role that space-related weapons may play in protecting our assets," State Department official John Mohanco told the United Nation's Conference on Disarmament in June 2006.
Victoria Samson, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information (CDI), says it's clear from the new approach where the administration is heading. "Of Bush's six goals for space, four of them include national security; under the Clinton policy, only two of the six had a national security focus," says Samson.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty -- to which the United States is a signatory -- already bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space. But the treaty says nothing about advances in "conventional weaponry" -- a term which in any case becomes completely irrelevant when applied to space. As Samson put it, "When you're traveling at 15,000 miles per hour, a chip of paint can be lethal."
"A war in space could create a battlefield that will last forever," explains University of California physicist Joel Primack, "encasing our entire planet in a shell of whizzing debris that will thereafter make space near the Earth highly hazardous for peaceful as well as military purposes."
Hoping to prevent such an outcome, the international community has been pushing for a new treaty that would clarify the parameters set forth in 1967, but the movement has faced continual resistance from the United States. The resistance is unsurprising given that the Pentagon has initiated programs to develop just such weapons systems.
According to research produced jointly by CDI and the Stimson Center, in 2006 the DoD requested $22.5 billion for space activities that include the development of high-powered laser technology, Ballistic Missile Defense System Interceptors, and the ominous-sounding Space Control Technology. According to Samson, moreover, budget justification documents indicate that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency plans to ask for another $45 million in its fiscal 2008 budget request for initial work on a space-based test bed of interceptors -- the descendant of Ronald Reagan's ill-fated "Star Wars" program.
The October vote in the UN against PAROS was, of course, hardly the first time the United States stood alone against the international community on issues of global peace and environmental security, and 2006 actually marks the second year in a row the administration opposed PAROS language. It claims that since no space arms race exists, there is no reason to legislate.
Critics scoff at this circular logic.
"The Bush administration's claims that because there aren't any official space weapons programs, we don't need a treaty are spurious at best," says Samson. "If we wait until there are official weapons in space, we may be too late."
Frida Berrigan, a senior research associate at the World Policy Institute, agrees. "There is no arms race in space only in the sense that right now we are racing ourselves. But as we do that, we are building the racetrack, erecting the bleachers, and encouraging the other teams, so to speak." she says. "The only way to prevent an arms race in space is not to run it, and that is what PAROS is all about."
Berrigan and Samson are part of a growing base of opponents to the U.S. encroachment on space that includes scientists, activists, and politicians. In 2005, Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio introduced the Space Preservation Act of 2005, a bill that would ban weapons in space and prohibit the use of weapons to damage or destroy objects in orbit. Calling the idea of weapons in space "astronomical arrogance," Kucinich suggested that the administration was exploiting fear and paranoia and risked "turning the heavens into a hell" by extending aggression to space.
That bill died in the 109th Congress, but a spokesperson from Kucinich's office told the Prospect that the Congressman is preparing to re-introduce the legislation in the 110th. Despite a Democratically controlled legislature, however, Kucinich could face opposition from members of his own party. The incoming chairs of the two House committees that will be charged with reviewing the bill -- Science (chaired by Bart Gordon of Tennessee) and Armed Services (chaired by Ike Skelton of Missouri) -- both voted in favor of the National Missile Defense Act, which was signed into law on July 22, 1999. (Skelton co-sponsored the bill.)
Besides defense, the other sector that will win big under the new policy is the multi-billion dollar commercial remote sensing industry, which includes heavy-hitters such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
Space business is big business. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that worldwide commercial and governmental space revenues already amount to at least $180 billion a year. The new policy reaffirms the administration's commitment to funnelling millions of dollars in government contracts to the remote sensing industry. And since the same handful of companies develop both commercial and defense systems, the number of real winners under the Bush space program can be counted on one hand.
For its part, the State Department has been quick to dismiss the criticism and in the months leading up to and immediately following the policy announcement, has worked tirelessly to qualify its position. "Protection doesn't necessarily mean anything forceful," an administration official said during a press briefing on the policy in October 2006.
But that has done little to muffle the voices of dissent.
"As one of the biggest users of space, the United States has an opportunity to shape the debate in a way that would be to our advantage," says Samson. "If we choose to ignore other countries, the international community will shape the debate for us, and it very well may do so in a manner that is not in America's best interests."
Christopher Moraff is a Philadelphia-based writer and reporter who has written for In These Times and The American Prospect Online, among other publications.
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