President George Bush is expected to issue a directive in the next few weeks giving the US air force a green light for the development of space weapons, potentially triggering a new global arms race, it was reported yesterday. The new weapons being studied range from hunter-killer satellites to orbiting weapons using lasers, radio waves, or even dense metal tubes dropped from space by a weapon known as "Rods from God" on ground targets.
The national security directive on space has been sought by the air force since last year. The New York Times yesterday quoted a senior administration official as saying a decision is expected within weeks. Neither the air force nor the White House returned calls seeking comment.
The directive will replace a 1996 directive signed by Bill Clinton which was vaguely worded but which emphasised thepeaceful use of space, in line with almost unanimous global opinion. Plans for potential space weapons were vetoed by the Clinton White House.
Space warfare experts said they expected the Bush administration directive to be similarly vague but also to signal a shift in attitude towards exploring ways of affirming US dominance in space militarily.
"Up to now, this has been a campaign by the air force to have the freedom to do what they want to do in space," said Theresa Hitchens, vice-president of the Centre for Defence Information. "This will, for the first time in US history, will give them the go-ahead."
Ms Hitchens argued the directive would trigger an arms race in space. "Let's think of a world where US has 'death stars' you think other countries are going to accept that?" she said.
The new push to develop space weapons comes as the earth-based missile defence system, intended to hit an incoming missile with another missile and which was heavily promoted by the Bush administration, has been set back by technical problems and failed tests. The air force's intentions were spelt out last September by General Lance Lord, head of its space command, who said satellites had given US military power a decisive advantage with their spying, communications and targeting capacities. That advantage had to be maintained by "space superiority".
"It can be our destiny if we work it hard and continue to aggressively follow that," he said.
The potential weapons fall into two main categories as defined by a 2002 Pentagon planning document: "space control" or anti-satellite warfare, and "space force application" or attacking the ground from orbit. The air force claims that it can design military satellites that could protect US military and civilian satellites already in orbit. However, most space experts argue that the satellites are aimed at destroying other country's satellites.
"Space force application" weapons include the global strike programme, which envisages a space plane armed with half a ton of munitions. The "Rods from God" scheme would aim tungsten, titanium or uranium cylinders at targets on the ground from a position in low earth orbit. By the time they hit the earth they would be travelling at around 7,500 mph , with the impact of a small nuclear warhead.
Another option would use mirrors to focus an intense laser beam onto terrestrial targets, referred to as a "death star" by its critics. But according to one estimate a space-based laser would cost $100 million per target. "It's an enormously expensive way of hitting the ground," said Laura Grego, a space weapons expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She said the "space control" satellites were more likely to be deployed, but even they could trigger an arms race.
"We're legitimising the idea of attacking other people's satellites and we have the most to lose. This technology is diffusing rapidly," Ms Grego said. "To be the masters of space you'd have to not allow anyone else to launch into space. But you can't blow up everyone's launch pads."
Copyright 2005 The Guardian, Great Britain