Field of Science

Space: The Violent Frontier?

A couple of days ago, the US sent up a missile to blow up a "rogue" satellite. China had also done the same thing a year or so ago. These actions seem like ominous preludes to a possible arms race in space, the last thing the world wants.

In the latest issue of Pragati, Adityanjee has an article that exhorts India to develop its own ASAT (anti-satellite) system in response to these actions by the US and China. While developing such a system might be good insurance and a future bargaining chip, the first and most important thing we all need to do is keeping pushing for an international treaty to ban weapons in space. Not only will a failure to do this lead to a possible new Cold War, but it can also render space inhospitable for peaceful technologies, an event that will be disastrous for countries that currently use satellites for weather forecasting and precipitation for example.

Mike Moore, who is a previous editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has written a new book on the history and current status of attempts by the US to weaponise and militarise space. As in many other cases, the US- no friend of treaties for quite some time now- is unique in having vetoed and blocked attempts to forge international treaties to ban weapons in space. This is probably not too surprising considering the attempts by the US since the 19060s (when they were developing a purported system to oust Chinese ballistic missiles) to the 1980s (age of the infamous Star Wars) to the 2000s (the Bush administration's obsession with National Missile Defense). True to other traditions, the US has constantly underscored its sovereign right to exceptionalism when the rest of the world thinks otherwise. The US satellite blowup comes close on the heels of renewed efforts of China and Russia to push for an international treaty to ban space weapons.

In his book, Moore documents how President Eisenhower made spirited efforts to stop an arms race in space. However, every administration since the Reagan administration has vetoed attempts by other space-faring countries to negotiate such treaties. The Pentagon's love affair with GPS-guided precision weapons in the 90s fueled ambitions to weaponise space. Again, it's the US that is leading the world into a dangerous era and is interested in unilaterally pursuing belligerent aims. It seems to be still living in Cold War mode. As Moore says, China and Russia (and presumably India) have many more important problems to tackle and spend money on than building a space weapons capability. However, they can, and will, build this capability if they see the US constantly trying to do so.

The US in fact has a golden opportunity right now to preserve its superiority in weapons technology. The situation reminds me of the early days of the nuclear arms race, when an exceptional opportunity to preserve the US superiority over Russia in nuclear arms was lost because of politicking by right wing hawks and threat inflation specialists. After that, Russia soon caught up and it was too late. Similarly, now is the time for the US to talk to other nations and sign a space-weapons ban, thus preserving and possibly sealing its current technological advantage.

One of the central points of missile defense that I have often made in other posts, is that it is almost assuredly going to fail against ballistic missiles, a point which should have been emphasized in the Pragati article. This points needs to be constantly emphasized because like some annoying virus, it keeps infecting and enamoring the minds of US and world officials in every successive administration, in spite of its proven lack of feasibility. Shooting down ballistic missiles realistically has always been a pipe dream harboured by zealous government officials, and the fallibility of this has been demonstrated time and time again by distinguished scientists and other officials. Any attempt to build an anti-ballistic missile system is a huge waste of money, time and talent, and as an added insidious side-effect, it breeds hostility in other nations, something that has already happened because of the US National Missile Defense system. Missile defense should rankle the hearts of democracy and peace-lovers, libertarians and economic conservatives.

Shooting down satellites is another matter, and unfortunately easier than shooting down ballistic missiles. But as Moore points out in his book, one of the many effects of such an exchange will be an amplification of debris in low-earth orbit, debris that will likely make it impossible to use satellites for peaceful purposes, including missions to other planets in the solar system. And of course, it will add perhaps irreversibly to the hubris-laden image that the US has in the world right now.

Every attempt should be made by all space-faring countries to push for an international treaty banning any kind of weapons in space. But sadly, it's the US again that is posing the biggest impediment to the forging of such a consensus. The next President should make it a priority to sign such a treaty, and Obama has indicated that he might be interested. Any attempt by the US to develop a space weapons capability will lead to a dangerous arms race with Russia, China, India and others, involving huge expenditures and wasted efforts. It will contribute to an already deeply dividing feeling of international resentment and animosity. But perhaps most importantly, it will send out a signal that space, that ultimate refuge that is supposed to be the equal sovereign right of every human being on the planet, can be belligerently conquered and manipulated by a few nations. After that, everything will be up for grabs.

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