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Space as a military base: This could well be the future of warfare

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 06, 2005

    Recent wars have proved that observation from space is an integral part of modern day conflict. Space is considered the fourth dimension of warfare. In all these wars, American space forces had an asymmetric advantage over their enemy — particularly in the arena of space reconnaissance and navigation. Now it appears that the Bush administration wants to enhance this asymmetry by putting offensive and defensive weapons into outer space.

    The US Air Force is seeking President Bush’s approval for a national-security directive that could move the US closer to weaponising space. This proposed change would mean a substantial shift in US policy. If implemented, it would replace the policy articulated by the Clinton administration in 1996, which concentrated on the peaceful uses of space. It is anticipated that the coming directive would not openly call for militarising space but will talk of having free access to space in order to protect America’s space assets.

    This new approach will certainly be opposed by Russia, China and many of America’s allies. Also, Bush is not likely to escape domestic criticism on the issue. So why is the US doing this? The official view is that since the US depends so heavily on space capabilities, it must remain prepared to confront adversaries on the high ground of space. It is argued by a few analysts that since the US has failed to develop fool-proof technology for a missile defence shield, it is looking at space weapons as an ‘alternative’.

    The base document for the upcoming space directive is the report of the January 2001 space commission, led by Donald Rumsfeld, which has recommended that the military should “ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space”. In fact, Rumsfeld is of the opinion that “space could be the next Pearl Harbour”. In 2002, after weighing this report, President Bush withdrew from the 30-year-old Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with Russia, which banned space-based weapons.

    The militarisation of space is not a simple mission. It would require new weapons, new satellites and, more importantly, hundreds of billions of dollars. But the US has had space-based weapon systems on the drawing board for years, including miniature (micro) satellites that could attack other satellites, a ‘rods from god’ programme that can hurl tungsten/uranium metal rods at targets on the ground with the force of a small nuclear weapon, high-powered lasers, and even a space plane that could drop weapons from orbit. Some of these technologies could be ready within one or two years.

    The recent stances of the Bush government indicate that America would want to continue with its unilateral policies irrespective of global concerns. But things may not stop at this. US policies of space weaponisation may force Russia and China to jump into the space arms race.