(SCF) Washington – As the entire system of arms control is eroding, a war in the orbit appears to be a not so distant future. The US has just taken a big step forward to unleash an arms race in space.
On December 23, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act – the legislation to re-launch the «Star Wars». The national ballistic missile defense (BMD) is to enter a new phase as the commander-in-chief struck the word «limited» from the description of the concept and the mission. The BMD has become «unlimited» now to greatly complicate the international security agenda and heighten tensions with Russia and China. The new law calls for the Defense Department to start «research, development, test and evaluation» of space-based systems for missile defense».
The efforts are to focus on the acquisition of technology to defeat both small-scale and large-scale nuclear attacks and unsettle the strategic balance in US favor.
According to Los Angeles Times, «the provisions signal that the US will seek to use advanced technology to defeat both small-scale and large-scale nuclear attacks. That could unsettle the decades-old balance of power among the major nuclear states». Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who introduced and shepherded the policy changes in the House, said, «I hope that the day will come when we could have solid-state lasers in space that can defeat any missile attack». Welcome back to «Star Wars» of the eighties!
Philip E. Coyle III, a former assistant secretary of Defense who headed the Pentagon office responsible for testing and evaluating weapon systems, described the idea of a space-based nuclear shield as «a sham». «To do this would cost just gazillions and gazillions», Coyle said. «The technology isn’t at hand — nor is the money. It’s unfortunate from my point of view that the Congress doesn’t see that».
It should be noted that as a candidate, Barack Obama called ballistic missile defense plans «unproven» and vowed to cut them! The decision to re-launch the «Star Wars» is at odds with the opinion of many experts in the field. For instance, the 2016 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), says the US missile defense program is costly, unreliable, and exempt from oversight. «Despite more than a decade of development and a bill of $40 billion, the GMD system is simply unable to protect the U.S. public», the authors wrote.
«The missile defense system is one of the most expensive and complex military systems in history, yet it is the only major defense program not subject to standard ‘fly before you buy’ performance standards», said UCS Senior Scientist Laura Grego, the report’s lead author. «Fifteen years of this misguided, hands-off approach has resulted in a costly system that won’t protect the homeland».
But defense contractors will get great profits. Three of them — Boeing Co., Raytheon Co. and Northrop Grumman — donated a total of $40.5 million to congressional campaign funds from 2003 through October of this year, according to federal election records.
The BMD efforts have never stopped. The US deploys powerful sea and shore-based Aegis air-defense systems that, with accurate guidance, could reach into orbit to destroy enemy spacecraft. The US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is to reboot the concept of Airborne Laser by building a laser-armed aircraft that can shoot down ballistic missiles after launch – the time they are the most vulnerable.
The United States continues to invest in programs that could provide anti-satellite and space-based weapons capabilities. The US Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane has flown secret missions to Earth orbit, carrying a mystery payload. The spacecraft is a maneuverable, reusable, space test platform which boosts into low orbit – around 250 miles high – atop a rocket but lands back on Earth like an airplane. According to Dave Webb, chairman of the Global Network Against Weapons Nuclear Power in Space, the X-37B «is part of the Pentagon’s effort to develop the capability to strike anywhere in the world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour», known as the Prompt Global Strike.
America is funding the development of the Spaceborne Payload Assist Rocket-Kauai (SPARK) launch system, designed to send miniaturized satellites into low-Earth and sun-synchronous orbits. Speedy replacement of disabled satellites in the event of attack is to secure the US military’s use of space constellations in support of operations during a conflict. In its efforts to rapidly launch swarms of miniaturized satellites on the cheap, the US military is also looking to leverage the private sector.
The reusable recovery of a SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has fundamentally changed the military balance of power and, perhaps inadvertently, launched the era of space militarization. According to Stratfor Global Intelligence (SGI), «the battle to militarize space has begun». The think tank believes that «as existing technologies proliferate and new developments provide greater access to space, Cold War frameworks for the peaceful sharing of Earth’s near orbit will erode».
Weapons of mass destruction are banned from space under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. But the Treaty does not ban the placement of conventional weapons in orbit.
The potential arms race in space in an issue of major concern for the United Nations. In 2008, Russia and China proposed the first ever draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). The initiative led nowhere being torpedoed by the United States.
In December 2015, The United Nations General Assembly adopted a Russia-led resolution calling for a nonbinding restriction against the first placement of weapons in outer space (also known as «no first placement initiative»). 129 nations, including China voted to adopt the measure. The only government objecting to the substance of our initiative was the United States. The EU abstained. According to Russian officials, the United States rejects the idea of holding talks with Russia on the problem.
By signing the bill into law, President Obama has ushered the world into an unfettered arms race, unsettling the balance of power among the major nuclear states. The implementation of the law will result in wasting a lot of money while the national debt is heading to $20 trillion.
The landmark change to the BMD policy, especially the plans to base weapons in space, will inevitably complicate the relationship with Russia at the time the entire system of arms control and non-proliferation is about to unravel. From now on, the US will always be perceived as a warmonger who launched an armed race in space and did away with the restrictions on BMD plans – the unsolved problem that obstructs any efforts to address the security agenda and gain positive results.
This post by Peter Korzun originally ran on Strategic Culture.