The Bush administration's push for a missile-defense capability, though couched in the language of reducing the threat of nuclear war or defending against a lesser attack by a "rogue state" such as North Korea or Iraq, is part of a much broader interest in holding the high ground of military superiority in space.
A congressionally mandated commission headed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently warned of a "space Pearl Harbor" in which US satellites and other assets could be disabled or destroyed, severely harming the nation's ability to gather military intelligence and direct its forces on land and sea.
It's a "virtual certainty," the Rumsfeld group asserted, that war will be fought in space one day, just as it has been on land, at sea, and in the air. "Given this virtual certainty," the commission reported, "the US must develop the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space. This will require superior space capabilities."
The long-range plan of the US Space Command states that "In 2020, if not sooner, adversaries will essentially share the high ground of space with the United States and its allies." As a result, "the United States must be prepared to ensure our space advantage over an enemy."
Moves by Russia, China
Proponents of this view point out that earlier this year Russia reorganized its armed forces to create a new military service for space warfare. Also, China is developing what it calls a "parasite satellite" that would attach itself to and disable other satellites.
Among its recommendations, the Rumsfeld group said the president should "have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and ... defend against attacks on, US interests."
Does this represent a "military revolution," as some experts put it, akin to aircraft-carrier warfare and blitzkrieg? Or is it merely a rehashing of Ronald Reagan's 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed "star wars" by critics, with its vision of space-based lasers blasting enemy warheads? Would it prompt a new arms race in space? Is it technologically feasible? Is it affordable?
Rumsfeld's overall military review, expected in another month or so, will reveal more details. But there is no doubt that he, and other senior administration officials, see the possibilities and perhaps the necessity of space-based military systems.
Pentagon analyst Andrew Marshall, one of the main figures in the Rumsfeld review, sees the need to defend against enemy missiles in space. He was one of the key witnesses before an earlier commission - also headed by Rumsfeld - established by Congress in 1997 to assess ballistic missile threats to the US.
While missile-defense research and testing has moved slowly and somewhat fitfully over the 18 years since Mr. Reagan launched SDI, advances have been made.
"This is rocket science, and it is difficult, but not impossible," says Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Defense Department's missile-defense program. "We are now on the threshold of acquiring and deploying missile defenses, not just conducting research. We are, in fact, crossing over from rhetoric to reality, from scientific theory to engineering fact to deployed systems."
Current planning is moving beyond the limited, ground-based missile-defense system financed by the Clinton administration to a "layered defense," including the Navy's Aegis battle-management system soon to be deployed on cruisers and destroyers, airborne lasers, and eventually space-based elements.
Daniel Goure, a Rumsfeld adviser and senior defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., suggests that "the United States should consider pursuing an aerospace-centered strategy" of national defense.
"Aerospace power, deployed on land, at sea, and in space, provides a unique set of operational advantages," Dr. Goure asserts in a recent issue of National Defense magazine. "A revolution in aerospace power is in the offing."
Critics in Congress
The new administration faces congressional critics on missile defense, particularly space-based elements. "We fear that the president may be buying a lemon here," says Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "I don't know how you support the deployment of a program that doesn't work."
But the administration also has supporters on Capitol Hill who advocate increased US superiority in space. "To those who say we can't militarize space, I must say, do you want somebody else to do it?" says Sen. Robert Smith (R) of New Hampshire.
"If we intend to maintain our information superiority, we need a strong space-control program to protect our assets and to deny our adversaries the use of their own systems," Senator Smith told a recent seminar at the Center for Security Policy in Washington.
The extent to which Rumsfeld will follow his apparent inclinations toward the militarization of space in the name of protecting the homeland is unclear. In addition to technological uncertainties, expense will certainly be a factor. Cost estimates for full layered missile defenses range as high as $240 billion - a breathtaking figure to many people.
"Even the limited, land-based system supported by the Clinton administration was going to cost at least $60 billion to develop," says Alise Frye, a national-security expert at Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.
"A much larger, layered system as anticipated by the current Bush administration will multiply that cost many times over, without increasing the likelihood that it will ever in fact work."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor