Rumsfeld sidesteps space weaponry

Defense secretary gives Air Force responsibility for protecting satellites

May 09, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave the Air Force control of protecting the growing number of U.S. satellites yesterday, but he sidestepped questions about whether he was opening the frontier of space to offensive and defensive weaponry.

Outlining Pentagon management changes at a news conference, Rumsfeld highlighted the importance of U.S. satellites for everything from telephone calls and weather forecasts to helping alert the military of any impending missile attack on U.S. soil.

"Our dependence on operations in space, however, makes us somewhat vulnerable to new challenges," Rumsfeld said, adding that the United States must "pay careful attention to protecting and promoting our interest in space."

Before becoming defense secretary in January, Rumsfeld headed a congressionally created bipartisan commission that concluded the United States must develop "weapons systems" in space to defend satellites. Yesterday, he avoided the politically sensitive issue of space weaponry. Some analysts fear that by placing weapons in space, the United States could spur another arms race.

"I'm not in a position to make decisions on particular - or comment on particular weapon systems," Rumsfeld said. "We just haven't gotten to that point."

Under the management proposal outlined yesterday by Rumsfeld, the Air Force was assigned the responsibility to "organize, train and equip for prompt and sustained offensive and defensive space operations," now divided among the services and various Pentagon offices. That responsibility will be handled by a new four-star Air Force general, although one was not named.

Pressed repeatedly on whether he was taking the first step toward putting weapons in space, Rumsfeld declined to answer directly. At one point, though, he quoted from the National Space Policy, developed in 1996, saying that the United States may use "diplomatic, legal and military measures to preclude an adversary's hostile use of space systems and services."

Sen. Robert C. Smith, a New Hampshire Republican and space defense advocate who took part in the news conference, was more explicit about the possibility of U.S. space weaponry, saying later, "Down the road, of course, that's what's going to happen."

"There are nations out there that are hostile to us, and they are in space," Smith said, without specifying the countries. "They have such weapons as lasers, anti-satellite weapons and electromagnetic pulse weapons, and we have to be ready to recognize that threat."

Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry, a Texas Republican who also took part in the news conference, singled out China as a country that is working on anti-satellite military programs.

"Most Americans don't understand how dependent we are on space now, not just for the military but for the everyday life of the average American," he said. "We have to be prepared to deal with that."

Thornberry, a member of the Armed Services Committee, noted that of the estimated 750 active satellites in orbit, about 300 belong to the United States. During the Persian Gulf war, 90 percent of the long-distance military communications involving U.S. commanders came via satellite, he said.

In addition to offensive or defensive weapons in space, Thornberry said, there are other options - such as constructing a hardened satellite that is less vulnerable to attack - that can also be used to protect U.S. space assets.

Besides the management changes within the Air Force, Rumsfeld said a Policy Coordinating Committee for Space is being set up within the National Security Council, the White House-based entity that coordinates foreign and military policy. Rumsfeld also said that he and CIA Director George J. Tenet are establishing a committee to review intelligence issues involving space assets.

The Pentagon action to protect satellites raised fears of a new realm for weapons proliferation.

"It's going to create an arms race in space," predicted Tom Cardamone, executive director for the Council for a Livable World Education Fund, an arms control advocacy group. "It seems like the administration is in a headlong rush for an attack capability for a threat that doesn't exist."

Cardamone said anti-satellite weapons would be expensive and could make a proposed missile defense system "look easy and cheap by comparison." The council called on President Bush to reaffirm the tenets of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bars nuclear weapons in space, and expand its scope to bar all weapons.

Henry Cooper, who headed missile defense efforts during the administration of Bush's father, maintained that U.S. weaponry should have the same "superiority" in space that it has in the air, on the sea and on land. "The arguments about not militarizing space are naive," he said, because U.S. satellites make "attractive targets."

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