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Rumsfeld May Spark Space Weapons Debate

by Ira Chernus on Jan 23, 2001

Ira Chernus

Throughout the 20th century, in times of peace, U.S. military researchers were busy inventing new weapons for the next war. The new Secretary of Defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, seems determined to lead us into the 21st century under the banner of “While you have peace on earth, prepare for war in space.”

As he takes office, we should demand a public debate on his favorite cause, the militarization of space. Otherwise, we may plunge blindly into the era of space warfare that Pentagon-paid scientists are already planning.

The wizards of military technology have always flourished in times of relative tranquillity. From 1871 to 1914, Europeans enjoyed a peace that many believed would last forever. Hence their shock when they discovered in World War I the horrors of tanks, machine guns, submarines and poison gas.

After the war, the shock waves reached the United States. American leaders signed a treaty purporting to outlaw war in 1928; by 1935, thousands of young men had added their names to a formal pledge never to take up arms again. But in the meantime devotees of aerial warfare were designing new armaments: bombers carrying massive bombs, aircraft carriers launching deadly fighter and torpedo planes.

Even as newspapers reported investigations of “the munitions makers” of World War I, there was little public notice, let alone public discussion, of the new weapons systems. Only sci-fi devotees even imagined the discoveries that were paving the way for the most monstrous bombs of all. When public debate erupted after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was too late.

In the post-Cold War era of peace, weapons development continues at the nation’s nuclear laboratories, which plan to test the next generation of bombs on computers rather than under the ground. But who’s paying attention?

The real challenge with both nuclear and conventional weapons is figuring out where to use them and making sure they hit their intended targets. Advocates of military might think that they’ll solve this problem by turning to the final frontiers — space and the virtual realm of computer technology. They have a passionate booster in Donald Rumsfeld.

The Air Force’s Space Command boasts that it can develop computerized satellites that will tell U.S. commanders everything that is happening, at every moment, everywhere in the world. It also promises that these satellites will guide U.S. weapons precisely to the target every time. It has already spent billions of dollars preparing for the militarization of space. But it wants much more.

We already have more destructive power than any one nation, or even the world as a whole, could possibly use. We have that power because of another revolution in military technology that went largely unnoticed. During the detente of the late 1960s and 1970s, the weapons designers went as far as they could with big, unwieldy, city-busting bombs. So they invented a new generation of “smaller” strategic weapons, precision-guided by computers, mounted eight or ten at a time on a single warhead. Apart from a brief flap over defensive missile systems, there was scarcely any public interest.

The Space Command plans to use its satellite-and-computer network not only for guiding these earth-based weapons but to destroy enemy satellites. It is called “full-spectrum dominance.” Its proponents say it will “protect U.S. interests and investments.”

There’s nothing secret about their plan. They shout it out in glossy brochures and slick websites, hoping to get a bigger piece of the budgetary pie. George W. Bush’s selection of Rumsfeld indicates that the new administration wants to cut the pie very much to the Space Command’s liking.

The only part of the plan getting scrutiny, now as in the 1960s, is missile defense. Space war boosters count on National Missile Defense (NMD) to ensure full-spectrum dominance, to spin off the technology that space wars will require and to get us to pay for it all. Rumsfeld’s passions for NMD and for space weapons are two sides of the same coin.

Once the Pentagon tosses that coin, there will be no way to stop an arms race in space, the costs of which, in money and eventually in human lives, is literally incalculable. Now is the time for a full-scale public debate on the militarization of space.

That debate might well convince most of us that the Bush-Rumsfeld course is too dangerous to follow. But even if most of us choose to accept it, we should choose it consciously, with full consideration of all the alternatives. Peacetime is the time to pay attention to the new technology of war. After the next war, it may be too late.


Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.