Pentagon Officials Make Case for Weapons Capability in Space

The nation's space policy does not endorse the development of space weapons, although it leaves much room for interpretation. Defense analysts say they expect the Bush administration to take a more robust approach, in part, because senior Pentagon officials have publicly endorsed the development of a space-based weapons capability.

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The Bush administration is updating the nation's space policy. The 1996 Space Policy Directive does not endorse the development of space weapons, although it leaves much room for interpretation. Defense analysts say they expect the Bush administration to take a more robust approach, in part because senior Pentagon officials have publicly endorsed the development of a space-based weapons capability. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

When the White House confirmed in May that it was revising the national space policy, spokesman Scott McClellan said the president's new directive was not intended to weaponize space. But senior Air Force officials have called publicly for establishing and maintaining superiority in space. General Lance Lord, head of Air Force Space Command, said in a report last year that space superiority means freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack in space. Lieutenant General Daniel Leaf, vice commander of the Air Force space program, defends that approach.

Lieutenant General DANIEL LEAF (Vice Commander, Air Force Space Program): We are more dependent, in a positive sense, on space capabilities than any other nation. We have the most to lose. It is far more likely that another nation would try to counter our space systems than be worried about us countering their space systems. We have the greatest at risk. We have to protect it.

O'HARA: Pentagon officials say they are especially concerned about possible sabotage of US satellites which are critical for maintaining communications, financial transactions, surveillance and military operations. General Leaf says the Global Positioning System, or GPS, as it's known, is an obvious example.

Lt. Gen. LEAF: Because it touches everyday life for people who even just swipe a gas card and the timing signal. GPS makes that transaction possible. But it allows our forces to be very precise. The weapons we drop with GPS guidance makes it easier to precisely locate a target, attack that and nothing else. So you don't just take less risk, you also have to destroy less on the enemy side.

O'HARA: But the arms control community is very concerned that systems being developed by the Air Force for what it calls defensive purposes have an offensive capability. One example is the XSS-11, an experimental micro satellite. General Leaf says the Air Force launched its first XSS-11 this year. Its purpose, he says, is to rendezvous with satellites for maintenance work.

Lt. Gen. LEAF: Right now our satellites, once they're up there, they're there. They require maintenance, just like an airplane or car, but we don't get to put them in the garage or put them in the hangar and work on them. So that's the focus of XSS-11.

O'HARA: But Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the National Security Decision Making Department at the US Naval War College, says the XSS-11 has other capabilities as well.

Ms. JOAN JOHNSON-FREESE (US Naval War College): Among them, the capability to disrupt other nation's military reconnaissance and communications satellite. So is that something that's defensive for us or offensive as a space weapon?

O'HARA: General Leaf says that the Air Force's top priority in space is to develop what he calls space situational awareness, which means the ability to recognize an attack. Karl Mueller, a defense policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, says there are a lot of shortfalls in trying to meet that goal.

Mr. KARL MUELLER (Rand Corporation): It's often the case now that if a satellite fails, we don't actually know why it failed, and you can envision situations in which it would be very important to know whether the satellite had collided with a piece of space debris or had been attacked by an enemy or something else happened to it.

O'HARA: General Leaf says the Air Force has adopted what he calls a defense counter-space mind-set to deal with ambiguous situations.

Lt. Gen. LEAF: Some think that means any time something happens to our satellites, we'll assume it's an attack. Absolutely not the case. But we don't assume it's a computer glitch, either.

O'HARA: Arms control advocates say the Bush administration is moving toward the development of anti-satellite weapons and space-based weapons for attacking targets on Earth. Joan Johnson-Freese at the Naval War College agrees.

Ms. JOHNSON-FREESE: Much of the technology that's being developed now could be used for that purpose, because it is dual-use. Right now, the United States has taken the position that we are developing them strictly for defensive capabilities. With a new directive, all bets are off.

O'HARA: There is little to stop the United States from adopting a more aggressive space policy. The United States withdrew two years ago from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bans space-based weapons. The US also has failed to support Russia and China in calling for a new, stronger outer space treaty.

Vicky O'Hara, NPR News at the Pentagon.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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