The empire strikes back
Philip Jacobson sees US space warfare return, two decades after Star Wars
Last week in Washington, the website of a little-known organisation called the US Office of Science and Technology Policy carried a low-key announcement about President George Bush signing an order that set out his administration's position on "freedom of action in space".
With the war in Iraq and the North Korea nuclear crisis dominating the headlines, this received relatively little play in the news media: since the moon landings, the final frontier has lost much of its former allure for the public.
Yet experts on the issue of deploying weapons beyond the earth's atmosphere were quick to interpret this new doctrine - the first revision of US strategy for a decade - as a unilateral declaration of American hegemony.
And in far-flung corners of the world, those who noticed the announcement were aghast. "Now America wants it all," said the Asia Times. "The US is turning space into its personal colony."
The order makes it crystal clear that the US will deny access to outer space to anyone it classifies as "hostile to America's vital interests" - a definition not necessarily confined to the Axis of Evil club. Freedom of action in space, it adds, is considered to be as crucial to the US as conventional air and sea power. A spokesman for the National Security Council was happy to elaborate: "Space has become an even more important component of US economic, national and homeland security."
According to Michael Krepon of the respected Henry L Stimpson Centre, which specialises in the study of space weapon development, the White House's muscular new policy will inevitably reinforce international concerns about America's intentions "to develop, test and deploy space weapons".
Krepon points out that the concept of warfare in space goes back well beyond the controversial 'Star Wars' initiative launched by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, which envisaged the deployment of a battery of anti-missile shields above the earth. "It's no coincidence that interest in space warfare re-emerged after the Cold War ended," Krepon told The First Post.
As he sees it, America's top priority is to protect the military's existing satellite communication and navigation systems, which are potentially highly vulnerable: "A $2 bag of marbles correctly inserted into space could wreck a hugely expensive satellite."
But though the Bush administration insists that it remains committed to the peaceful exploitation of space by
all nations and has no plans to develop a new space arsenal, Krepon argues that the order signed by the President has moved the whole issue significantly further forward: "Clinton's policy opened the door to developing space weapons... but that administration never did anything about it."
Over at the Centre for Defence Information, an independent think-tank, the director, Theresa Hitchens, is more blunt: the new White House doctrine, she says, "kicks the door a little more open to a space-fighting strategy."