Space: The Next Frontier for War?

Report from a Teach-in held October 14, 2000, in Toronto

“US Space Command – dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investments. Integrating space forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.”

That chilling quote comes from “Vision for 2020,” a mission statement issued by the Pentagon’s US Space Command. The cover of the statement depicts a laser weapon, aboard a US space vehicle, zapping a target on the earth below.

These electrifying facts were recounted by Karl Grossman, an award-winning US investigative journalist, to a teach-in on October 14, in Toronto sponsored by Science for Peace and other organizations. Grossman was the keynote speaker at the day’s events. He depicted a nightmare scenario, in which the US plans to militarize space and use it to dominate the rest of the world indefinitely. “There is only a narrow window to stop these plans from going forward”, he said pointing out that Canada could, if it chose, play a very significant role in attempting to block this development.

Four other experts also took part and discussed, from various perspectives, the American space programme plans. They concentrated particularly on the political and strategic implications of the NMD, the US “National Missile Defence”, a renewed version of Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (popularly know as “Star Wars”). The NMD can be seen as a first step in the Pentagon’s plans to monopolize space militarily, and indeed the step by which they dare the rest of the world to object to these plans. NMD is crucial, because it jeopardizes arms control, and would certainly bring a halt to present moves toward nuclear disarmament.

NMD is a plan to enable the US military to intercept and destroy nuclear missiles headed for its territory. It involves a complex global system of satellites, radars, booster rockets and other equipment, all required to work together. Those championing the project say that it is one of the most complicated technical challenges ever undertaken.

Critics say NMD risks triggering an arms race so grave it will make the Cold War look like child’s play, and that it violates basic international law set out in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. This document, signed by 91 countries including the United States, declares that space should be kept free of weapons, a position to which the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, renewed his commitment last year. Grossman pointed out that Canada has repeatedly supported this position. The proposal would also violate the Anti-Ballistic- Missile Treaty (ABM); nuclear deterrence is based on this treaty, because ballistic missile defences (such as NMD) would make possible a preemptive “first strike” by their possessors.

The NMD isn’t a sure thing yet. Two of three tests of the system have already failed and on September 1, 2000, President Clinton said: “I simply cannot conclude with the information I have today that we have enough confidence in the technology, and the operational effectiveness of the entire NMD system, to move forward to deployment.” He then decided to leave the final decision on the project’s future up to the new president. This means the NMD’s future depends on the new president’s position.

But why would the US want to pursue a programme that threatens world stability, endangering the post-Cold-War peace we’ve been expecting? Grossman believes the answer can be found in US Space Command documents such as “Vision for 2020”, and related reports on US space military operations. These documents lay out the American strategy in frank language. They explain that the United States should seek to rule space in the same way that the colonial powers, who came to global dominance in the 19th century, ruled the seas. “Nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests,” the document reasons. This is why NASA, created in 1958 as a civilian agency, and the US military are working together on shuttle missions, according to Grossman. It also explains why NASA uses plutonium nuclear power instead of solar power on space devices such as the Cassini probe: the US military is hoping for nuclear-powered devices in space. “Being an empire, being drunk with power, that is what I’m sorry to say my country is involved in,” says Grossman. Sergei Plekhanov, a professor of political science in the Centre for International and Security Studies at York University, also spoke at the teach-in; he believes that this situation threatens an arms race even more dangerous than that of the Cold War. He has observed that American foreign policy makers seem to underestimate Russia’s potential for challenging the West. While the Clinton Administration believes the Russians can be persuaded to accept the deployment of the NMD, and the Republicans criticize the Administration for even bothering to consider the Russian point of view, US policy-makers generally discount Russia as a major international actor. However discounting Russia’s opinion of NMD is shortsighted and mistaken. If Russia’s security is seriously challenged, its leaders may put their society and economy on a war footing. NATO’s expansion eastward and war in Kosovo have already unnerved them enough to modify the country’s nuclear posture. Because Russian conventional forces are in disarray, the Kremlin has begun to put greater emphasis on nuclear weapons. At this point, Russia continues to advocate cuts in its own and US nuclear offensive forces, but only on a condition that the ABM Treaty stays in force. “Losing Russia as a security partner may mean losing the world”, warns Plekhanov.

Russia is not the only country that could see NMD as a good reason to build up a nuclear arsenal. While China is mainly concerned with protecting its own sovereignty interests and doesn’t see the United States as a rival, the development of an extreme imbalance of military power could push the country to build up its own nuclear weapons, argues Julia Ching. Ching is a China specialist and a professor emeritus. She argued that the NMD could encourage China to join an arms race. If the NMD puts today’s world in such peril, then how can citizens stop its implementation? It is up to the US allies, specifically Canada, to refuse to cooperate with the programme, says Grossman. He also sees a role for the United Nations.

Stopping a mega-project like this one is no easy feat, and putting an end to NMD today does not necessarily mean it will not resurface tomorrow, says David Parnas, the director of the Software Engineering programme at McMaster University and former long-term consultant to the United States Department of Defence, who also spoke at the teach-in. He described how, while working on contract for the Department of Defense, he witnessed his colleagues bidding on contracts they knew were not feasible, simply to obtain the valuable DoD contracts. He then saw how they worked on projects that were inherently flawed — even after programmes were halted by higher-ups. In one case, a programme Clinton killed resurfaced under another name. This type of system almost guarantees that projects like NMD will continue into perpetuity, he argues.

This means that the fight against NMD could be long and hard. According to Ann Denholm Crosby, a political science professor at York University who spoke at the teach-in, Canada might on the surface appear to object to military projects like NMD because of our vocal principled stance. But behind the scenes, our actions leave a lot to be desired. Not only has Canada refused to oppose NMD, but it has agreed to changes of the NORAD treaty that would allow us to participate in NMD without public consultation if the Canadian government felt so inclined. “The United States wants Canada to participate in the programme because it needs Canada’s good name,” she said. Canadians are afraid to oppose US wishes because they fear the political or economic repercussions.“Do we as Canadians want to be involved slavishly in the US’s pursuits worldwide?” she asks.

But Karl Grossman is ever hopeful. He insists that the rest of the world has the power to stop the transformation of the heavens into a war zone and Canada, if it wants, has a possible leadership role to play in this fight. “Space should not, and cannot, be made an arena of war. I plead with you today to lead the United States into doing the right thing,” he said.

Other participating Organizations: Greenpeace, Oakville Centre for Peace, Ecology and Human Rights, Peacefund Canada, Ontario Voice of Women, Blumenfeld Fund, Burlington Association for Nuclear Disarmament, Peace and Social Justice Committee (Quakers), Lawyers for Social Responsibility, McMaster Peace Studies, le Centre de Ressources sur la Non-violence, Hiroshima Day Coalition, and Physicians for Global Survival.

A full copy of the report was sent to members for whom we have an e-mail address. If you didn’t receive a copy and are interested contact the office at 416-978-3606 or sfp@physics.utoronto.ca.