Friday, October 01, 2004

Sky Captains and the World of Tomorrow 

We take it as our duty to remind you periodically that the apparent boondoggle of "missile defense" is a shrewder investment than it seems, if one accepts that the program serves primarily as a fig leaf to preserve the modesty (and public viability) of other, bolder policy objectives that have rather less to do with "defense" than offense. From Noah Schactman of Wired:
The American military has begun planning for combat in space, an Air Force report reveals. And commercial spacecraft, neutral countries' launching pads -- even weather satellites -- are all on the potential target list.

"Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1: Counterspace Operations" is an apparent first cut at detailing how U.S. forces might take out an enemy's space capabilities -- and protect America's eyes and ears in orbit. Signed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, the unclassified report sketches out who would be in command during a space fight, what American weapons would be used and which targets might be attacked . . . .

In the opening pages of Counterspace Operations, the Air Force announces that it has a new job: to maintain America's "space superiority" -- the "freedom to attack as well as the freedom from attack" in orbit. This emerging mission has become just as important to American forces as control of the skies, the report states. And together, the two form "crucial first steps in any military operation."

Keeping this "space superiority" is really three jobs in one, the Air Force argues. The service needs to know what's happening in space, from solar flares to hostile satellites to orbiting debris. It has to defend against attacks on its space-related systems; last year, Iraqis tried to jam the Global Positioning System, and the Air Force expects similar moves in the years to come. Finally, the Air Force has to be ready to break down opponents' ability to use space at any time.

These opponents aren't just the few countries sophisticated enough to be called "space-faring," the document makes clear. Smaller states now routinely rely on larger countries' satellites to take pictures and route calls from above. Even low-tech terrorist cells have used satellite phones to make calls. So the Air Force sees nearly every nation, and every insurgent group, as a potential adversary in space.

The Air Force states this matter-of-factly in Counterspace Operations, as if the notions were anything but controversial. In truth, they represent a kind of power grab for the service, argues Jim Lewis, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The Air Force is advancing a pawn in the game," he said. "They have a goal that they've wanted to do for a long time -- they want to do warfare in space. This is a way to put it out there, and see if anybody slaps it down."

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