Opponents of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative liked to mockingly refer to it as “Star Wars”— implying that the program was grounded more in science fiction fantasy than executable reality. In some ways, they were right; its laser cannons and rail guns were beyond what we needed or could produce at the time.
At the same time, though, I think it’s a little dangerous to be so comically dismissive of the very real possibility of the militarization of space. The introduction of space-based weapons is no laughing matter, no matter how amateurish and poorly drawn the popular science fiction characters informing you about it are.
This past August, President Bush authorized the first revision of U.S. space policy in a decade— and did everything he could to keep it under wraps. This past week, the Washington Post got a hold of a copy of the unclassified portions.
The new space policy is all about the “fundamental right” of access to space— for the United States. Simply put, the new policy explicitly codifies our previously de facto, undeclared policy that the United States has the right to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants in space and reserves the defend itself against any “infringement on its rights.”
The arrogance of a sovereign right to treat outer space as our personal playground is nothing new. The defense clauses, however, make observers particularly anxious. The policy chooses its words with extreme care around the issue— lots of catchphrases like “take those actions necessary” and “respond to interference.” The only point well articulated on the subject is our opposition to “the development of new legal regimes... that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.”
Our renewed interest in space weaponry isn’t related at all to the War on Terror; a rail gun isn’t going to do much good in stopping a suicide bomber or a a sarin gas attack. If you don’t know what could cause a resurgence in old Cold Warriorisms, you haven’t been looking west much lately.
This summer, there was a minor furor when it was revealed the People’s Republic of China had been using ground-based laser systems to blind our spy satellites and prevent them from photographing mainland China as they passed overhead.
If China accelerates their plans for a 21st century Pax Sinica, it’ll play in perfectly to renewed U.S. technological jingoism— leaving everyone a M.A.D., M.A.D. world.