AS moviegoers the world over flock to the final Star Wars episode, another space drama awaits screening in Washington. The plot revolves around the military use of space and the possible first-ever overt deployment of weapons where heretofore only satellites and astronauts have gone.
A Pentagon study on future US space policy will be delivered to President Bush in June. Initial indications are that the study, led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and three years in the making, has as an option a directive to the Air Force to deploy some type of weapon in space. One mission would be to defend commercial and military satellites.
The president should not allow the Pentagon to deploy offensive or defensive weapons in space at this time. A Pandora's box is opened if weaponized satellites or high-tech space planes can hit another nation's satellites in 20 minutes, preventing them from detecting an offensive strike.
Maintaining transparency in spotting such a "first strike" has been the bedrock of peace between Russia, China, and the US. Deploying a satellite that can blind a nation's space surveillance or hold a nation's space commerce hostage would be the starter's gun for a new arms race.
Historically, soldiers strive to command the high ground. Satellites are today's high ground. Military officials are understandably concerned about a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attack against satellites in space. History teaches them to bring a healthy skepticism to almost any disarmament treaty.
Yet a 1967 UN treaty serves as a solid foundation for thinking about this issue. The treaty, signed by the US and based on policies that began in the Eisenhower era, certifies that "all nations on earth share space." It listed the rights and responsibilities for nations using space.
If, for instance, a nation launched a satellite that upon reentry didn't completely burn up and thus caused damage upon impact, the launching country was liable for damages. Though it did not prohibit conventional weapons in space, it forbids nuclear weapons in space.
Canada has just rejected a space defense alliance with the US because it feared the real goal was space weaponization. A multilateral treaty, perhaps similar to the weapons ban in force on Antarctica, might be one way to close this loophole.
The president should continue US passive military use of space as a platform for communication, observation, and land-based targeting, but not weaponization.