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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Space: The Phantom Menace

The October publication of President George W. Bush's new space policy marked a definitive victory in a long-fought campaign by right-wing hawks to...

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The October publication of President George W. Bush’s new space policy marked a definitive victory in a long-fought campaign by right-wing hawks to extend their agenda toward the stars.

How can we truly protect the U.S. homeland while ignoring the space above us? That is the question of space hawks, who for more than two decades have promoted a national security strategy that includes U.S. control of space-all planetary space. To that effect, the government created the U.S. Space Command in 1985.

Since the early 1980s, a campaign by defense contactors, right-wing policy institutes, and former military officials to control and militarize space has paralleled efforts to build an anti-ballistic missile defense system. President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known as the “Star Wars” defense, sought to raise public fear that the first attack on the homeland since Pearl Harbor would come from space and called for an extensive missile defense system.

Last month President George W. Bush released his administration’s revised National Space Policy. Four years in review, the new policy replaces the 1996 space policy set by the Clinton administration.

When announcing the policy, the president asserted that domination of space was as important to U.S. national interests as air or sea power. The intent to dominate is clear in the policy’s language: “The United States will preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. interests.”

The National Space Policy stresses the belief that U.S. control of space is not only essential to defend against attacks on the U.S. homeland, but also fundamental to U.S. prosperity. Speaking about the new strategy statement, Fredrick Jones, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, told the Associated Press: “Technological advances have increased the importance of and use of space. Now we depend on space capabilities for things like ATMs, personal navigation, package tracking, radio services, and cell phone use.”

According to Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information (CDI), “The changes in wording [from the Clinton policy] aggregate to a much more unilateralist vision of the U.S. role, particularly its military role, in space.” Hitchens said that “while seeking to assert ‘unhindered’ U.S. rights to act in space, the new policy at best ignores-and at worst dismisses-any U.S. obligations toward other space-faring nations and under a spectrum of international accords and agreements.”

The first National Space Policy, issued by the National Security Council as a presidential directive in 1996, opened the door to new lobbying for the development of space weapons by the defense industry, Air Force, and right-wing policy institutes.

Rumsfeld Commission Relaunches Space Militarization It was not, however, until the so-called Rumsfeld Space Commission released its report in January 2001, which warned of a “space Pearl Harbor,” that serious pressure started building for the government to develop space weapons.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been a leading proponent of a U.S. military presence in space. In 1999, Rumsfeld chaired the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, the so-called Space Commission established by the Republican Congress to challenge the perceived weakness of the Clinton administration on national defense issues. Rumsfeld also chaired the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States.

The Space Commission concluded that it is “possible to project power through and from space in response to events anywhere in the world. Having this capability would give the United States a much stronger deterrent and, in a conflict, an extraordinary military advantage.” The commission argued in Orwellian style that because the United States is without peer among “space-faring” nations, the country is all the more vulnerable to “state and non-state actors hostile to the United States and its interests.” In other words, U.S. enemies would seek to destroy the U.S. economy together with its ability to fight high-tech wars by attacking global-positioning satellites and other “space assets,” which would effectively result in a so-called space Pearl Harbor.

According to a March 2006 report produced by the CDI and the Henry L. Stimson Center, the Bush administration has already moved to develop a space weapons program. The “facts in orbit” that come from this commitment to “full-spectrum domination”-land, air, sea, and space-have already pushed a space weapons program forward. In 2006 the Department of Defense requested $22.5 million for space activities, including communication and reconnaissance.

Reviewing the 2007 Defense budget request, the CDI/Stimson Center report concluded: “These facts-the development and testing of space weapon technologies and the deployment of dual-use systems without any codes of conduct or rules of the road for their operation-will drive U.S. policy toward space weapons.” Such existing or proposed programs include a Space-Based Interceptor Test Bed, an Experimental Spacecraft System, the MDA Micro Satellite, and the Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space. According to the CDI/Stimson Center report, “The defense budget contains a number of high-energy laser research and development programs that are either necessary precursors to space weapons or are explicitly identified for such a mission.”

In a speech to the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in June 2006, John Mohanco, deputy director to the State Department’s Office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs, said that the United States would not participate in any negotiations to limit weapons use in outer space. “As long as the potential for such attacks [from space] remains, our government will continue to consider the possible role that space-related weapons may play in protecting our assets.”

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which Washington has signed and ratified, bans weapons of mass destruction in space and declares that space is to be used for the common good; Washington says it is not violating the treaty because it currently has no space weapons. Other countries, including China and Russia, say a new treaty is needed to ban anti-satellite and other space weapons, such as lasers. In 2005, Washington voted to block a UN resolution calling for a total ban on weapons in space.

Any weapons that the United States might eventually deploy in space would be defensive, say U.S. government officials. But weapons experts contend that if the United States installs space-based interceptors as part of its missile defense system, the interceptors could just as well be used for offensive purposes.

Indeed, the U.S. Air Force in 2004 published a vision paper, according to a Boston Globe report, that advocated a new agenda for space weapons including an air-launched anti-satellite missile, a ground-based laser aimed at low-Earth orbit satellites, and a “hypervelocity” weapon that could strike earth targets from space. The Air Force document said that U.S. space dominance “will require [the] full spectrum, sea, air, and space-based offensive counterspace systems.” The U.S. Air Force Space Command clearly states that military action in space must be offensive as well as defensive, requiring policy that calls for war fighting “in, from, and through space.”

The October release of the National Space Policy comes on the heels of a report by the “Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, the Space Relationship, and the 21st Century,” which is a misnamed task force assembled by various right-wing policy institutes. Among the report’s recommendations are the following:

  • Within three years, a space-based missile defense system should be tested (anticipated cost: $3.5 billion).
  • Deploy 1,000 Brilliant Pebbles-like space-based interceptors ($16.4 billion).
  • Because of the centrality of space to U.S. national security, efforts to counter U.S. primacy in space via restrictive legal regimes should be rejected.

The task force claims that the 21st century maintenance of the “U.S. lead in space may indeed be pivotal to the basic geopolitical, military, and economic status of the United States. Consolidation of the preeminent U.S. position in space is akin to Britain’s dominance of the oceans in the 19th century.”

The group’s members and sponsors include many key figures and institutions that advocate a more aggressive nuclear weapons and space weapons policy, including the four sectors of the space weapons lobby: defense contractors (including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Assured Space Access Technologies), think tanks and policy institutes (including the Hoover Institution), former military (including the Air Force Space Command), and university research institutes (including Tufts and MIT).

In addition to the ties to the sponsoring institutions-the American Foreign Policy Council, Claremont Institute, Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University, George C. Marshall Institute, Heritage Foundation, High Frontier, Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, and Institute of the North-the Independent Working Group included members with close links to the Center for Security Policy (CSP), National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP), and the Rumsfeld Space Commission.

William Van Cleave served as the group’s co-chairman along with Robert Pfaltzgraff of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, which published the group’s report. Van Cleave was a member of the infamous Team B Strategic Objectives Panel, a threat assessment committee authorized by George H.W. Bush, then-CIA director in the Ford administration. Along with two other members of the Independent Working Group- William R. Graham and Charles Kupperman-Van Cleave was a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, which opposed détente with the Soviet Union.

Van Cleave, Graham, and Kupperman all have had teaching positions at the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University (formerly Southwest Missouri State University). The three are also associates of NIPP, a nuclear weapons policy institute, and serve on the CSP advisory council. Two other members of the Independent Working Group who also have close ties with Missouri State University are Henry Cooper of High Frontier and Keith Payne of NIPP. Another Missouri professor who is part of this right-wing circle is J.D. Crouch, who served a short term as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy in the George W. Bush administration before returning to the university.

Van Cleave, chair of Missouri State University’s Defense and Strategic Studies Department, is co-director of research in strategy at the Jerusalem-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, a think tank closely associated with the Likud Party and Israeli military hardliners that also has an office in Washington, DC.

Another prominent figure in the Independent Working Group was Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council.

According to the editors of the National Review, “A domestic coalition of liberals and peaceniks that has consistently opposed ballistic missile defense since the early days of SDI is trying to make the National Space Policy controversial.” In their view, “What’s really going on here is a conflict of visions between hawks who recognize the importance of space power in the 21st century and doves who think international treaties restricting America’s technological advantages in space would make the world safer” (National Review Online, October 24, 2006).

During the Clinton administration, the hawks kept missile defense alive by raising fears about missile attacks on the U.S. homeland by China, Iran, and North Korea. They also accused Clinton of failing to adopt a “coherent policy and program,” as the neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC) opined in its 2000 publication Rebuilding America’s Defenses, which was meant to serve as a policy blueprint for Clinton’s successor. Promoting an ambitious, multilayered missile defense system, PNAC argued: “The ability to preserve American military preeminence in the future will rest in increasing measure on the ability to operate in space militarily: both the requirements for effective global missile defenses and projecting global conventional military power demand it.”

More recently, the hawks-in large part the same groups that supported the SDI in the mid-1980s-have revived their pressure campaign for a land-, sea-, and space-based missile defense system they say would ensure global dominance by the United States. Applauding the Independent Working Group’s work, the neoconservative-led CSP declares that the report “makes clear the imperative of developing and deploying missile defenses in the place where they can do the most good and at the least cost: space.”

Tom Barry is a contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org) and policy director of the International Relations Center (www.irc-online.org).


Sources Theresa Hitchens, “The Bush National Space Policy: Contrasts and Contradictions,” Center for Defense Information, October 13, 2006.

Theresa Hitchens, Michael Katz-Hyman, and Victoria Samson, “Space Weapons Spending in FY 2007 Defense Budget,” Center for Defense Information and Henry L. Stimson Center, March 6, 2006.

Project for the New American Century, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century, September 2000.

Brent Bender, “Pentagon Eyeing Weapons in Space; Budget Seeks Millions to Test New Technologies,” Boston Globe, March 14, 2006.

Stephanie Nebehay, “U.S. Insists on Right to Develop Arms for Outer Space,” Reuters, June 13, 2006.

“Concentrating on Missile Defense,” Decision Brief, No. 06-D 36, Center for Security Policy.

William D. Hartung with Frida Berrigan, Michelle Ciarrocca, and Jonathan Wingo, Tangled Web 2005: A Profile of the Missile Defense and Space Weapons Lobbies, Arms Trade Resource Center.

Independent Working Group, “Missile Defense, the Space Relationship, and the 21st Century,” Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, 2006, http://www.ifpa.org/pdf/IWGreport.pdf.

Editors, “Spacing Out,” National Review Online, October 24, 2006.




Tom Barry, "Space: The Phantom Menace," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, November 8, 2006).

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