Nothing new in using space for defense

May 29, 2001|By Tom Grant

OXFORD, England -- The United States is a space power.

This did not happen overnight, nor did Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recent announcement to task a four-star Air Force general to coordinate space operations under a unified Pentagon department make it happen.

Yet critics are now accusing Mr. Rumsfeld of breaking a taboo against "weaponizing" space. The critics make two mistakes. They assume that space is not already an arena of military activity and they assume that international law prohibits using space for defensive purposes.

At the dawn of the space age, the United States signed a number of international treaties to regulate the use of outer space. Prominent among these were a 1963 treaty banning nuclear weapons tests in outer space and a 1967 treaty banning weapons of mass destruction in outer space.

The treaties were drafted and signed in a global strategic environment differing radically from today's. It may even be that circumstances have changed so much as to render the treaties, or parts of them, a dead letter.

Even assuming their continued vitality, the treaties prohibit only certain forms of military activity in space -- chiefly, the deployment and use of weapons of mass destruction.

Some international lawyers argue that there has evolved a ban on any weapons in space. The treaty commitments of the United States -- forming the solid core of our international legal obligations -- most certainly do not include such a ban. The actual conduct of states, like treaties, can tell us what international law is. The way space-faring states have used space, however, like our treaties, does not support the notion that there exists an omnibus ban on using space for defense.

The American public has always recognized that our space programs have a defense component. The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs certainly inspired people and, in this sense, possessed innate value.

However, they cost the nation prodigious sums of money, even lives. America does not expend such resources if the expenditure yields no necessary product. To be sure, the spin-off value of space exploration is famous -- many school children can cite Tang and Velcro as fruits from the NASA tree. But congressmen -- and the voters who hire and fire them -- would never approve allocating hundreds of billions in public treasure in return for a few technological curiosities.

America's move into space spurred new technology, and it tapped an urge to explore. But, from the start, space was about defense. The Soviet Union took the lead in space in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and America initiated an all-out drive to catch up. This was inseparable from the exigencies of national defense.

The Soviet Union had a vast arsenal of missiles, targeted at America and the West. Missile technology and space technology, as intertwined as they were (and remain), could only develop in tandem. Gains in one meant gains in the other, and if the Soviet Union gained too much on the United States, then the balance of power on which global stability then depended would be jeopardized. Moreover, new uses for missiles developed. Launching satellites into orbit, they became key tools -- and space a key arena -- of spy craft.

Reorganizing our defense-related space programs as now planned does not weaponize space; it does not violate international law. Mr. Rumsfeld renews a generation-long commitment to use space for defense and brings openness and clarity to America's unavoidable role as a power in space.

Tom Grant, an international law and international relations specialist, is the Warburg Research Fellow at St. Anne's College, Oxford University.

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