Dreaming Space Power – Paving the Road To 21st Century Warfare

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Columbia LaunchWith its
stars and stripes on the left wing and the letters “USA” on the right wing, the space shuttle
Columbia was a potent symbol. She may have been technologically
old, but every time she came home she worked her way a little deeper
into people’s affections. Toy models of her were given to
the boys and girls born in the eighties. She had a snub nose. She
was “a good old girl,” and her disintegration over
Texas was experienced with infinite sadness. Farewell Columbia.

ship is loved, its controllers are not. To the outside observer,
the government space agency NASA seems to be a constant target
for criticism and thinly veiled ridicule, both from
the media and other government departments. With the Columbia disaster
it seems to have taken an even bigger beating than usual, with
calls for its recently appointed director to resign. I can hear
the charges already: ‘failing to safeguard a national treasure,’ ‘accident
waiting to happen,’ ‘organic incompetence.’

The space agency itself
seems almost too ready to blame its own apparent incompetence
and stupidity. We read that the shuttle maintenance
program has been neglected and under-funded. The federal government
states publicly that funding of NASA is “ineffective.” And
yes, even by the extravagant standards of the welfare-warfare state,
a shuttle journey is a very expensive trip: you don’t get
much change from $500 million.

All this is so much
smoke. While all bureaucracies tend to scrabble furiously to
cover their tracks when things go wrong, I would guess
that NASA, given its responsibilities and high visibility, is actually
better than other departments in respect of attention to safety
issues. Repairs have been carried out, and flights have certainly
been postponed when conditions did not allow for safe missions.
Second, the success of previous missions demonstrates that, despite
all the backbiting, NASA as a technical organization is manifestly
not completely incompetent or stupid. Third, under-funding arguments
are to be mistrusted: their hidden logic is that if the cause of
accident is indeed proven to be the result of under-funding, no-one
would be held responsible, because ‘they did the best they
could with available resources.’ In short, they are a cop-out.

The rush to put the shuttle program on hold is also deceptive.
As a mere interested observer with no knowledge of rockets, I believe
the space shuttle is still the only reasonably functional vehicle
which the US possesses for getting manned flights into space, and
is scheduled to remain flying for at least another 10 years. News
stories on the web have quoted a possible shuttle life-span of
some 40 or 50 years, and Columbia was only 28. While there is some
debate on the relative merits of manned and unmanned space flight,
the reality is that everyone is anxious to get the shuttle program
back on track.

That desire will not
stop the recriminations and reorganizations, which are the lifeblood
of bureaucratic politics. As they continue,
so the state apparatus grows in size and appetite, notwithstanding
all expressed intentions to achieve “better stewardship of
American tax dollars” (bureaucratic translation: ‘taking
money from your department, giving it to my department, and then
getting some more’).

It is also axiomatic
that those in command of the apparatus tend to try to increase
their own power and reach over time. Fierce
in-fighting takes place between government agencies as they compete
for resources — money and people, and as individual directors
compete for positions of power. In the specific and prestigious
domain of space exploration and its uses, the hierarchy of US government
organizations involved is incredibly complex, and is complicated
by the overlap of civilian bureaucracy with all three arms of the

The military applications
of space exploration have been brought into much sharper focus
over the last 2½ years. New York
professor Karl Grossman,
who has written extensively on the dangers of the use of nuclear
power in space, wrote in an article in
December 2000 for example, how US preparations to wage war in and
from space would be getting a huge boost with the assumption of
power by George W. Bush and Richard Cheney. But these concerns
are not new. There has always been something of a military flavour
to space exploration, even in the early years when ‘superpower
rivalry’ was expressed in the ‘space race.’ Soothing
noises were made about the value of scientific experiments and
the aspirations of all humanity, but the underlying reality was,
and is, that it is in the nature of nationalist-statist undertakings
constantly to be seeking a power advantage over real or imagined
rivals. This has historically been done through the combination
of technological superiority and territorial control, which expanded
to aerial control (command of the air), and now increasingly is
seen as ‘spatial’ or ‘universal’ control
(command of space).

Greater emphasis on
the military usefulness of space programs would be consistent
with a bureaucratic tussle scenario in which,
sooner rather than later, the monies spent on the ageing shuttle
(ineffective in terms of actual weaponry although still militarily
useful for tests of ancillary equipment such as long-range cameras),
could be re-allocated to funding some faster and sexier form of
rocket propulsion, thereby facilitating the aggressive military
aim of the “conquest of space” in the future.

Sean O'Keefe The appointment of Sean O’Keefe to the directorship of NASA
in early 2002 should be seen in this light. At a simple level, the appointment
can legitimately be regarded as an effort at greater budgetary rigour, based
on his good reputation as a manager and prior experience in the Office of Management
and Budget. A closer look at his background however — almost
exclusively in defense and national security-related issues — would confirm the much more plausible hypothesis that his appointment was designed
to ensure NASA is placed under the military wing, and brought firmly into line
with the overriding objectives of ‘pre-emptive hegemony’ as defined
in the National Security Strategy.

For NASA, the current
situation is described semi-officially as being a cross-road,
or dilemma. At the basic level, that’s
a clear signal that more money will be required. Sure enough, we learn from
the director that the agency faces a “distance and time dilemma” — meaning
in essence that it needs to find faster systems of propulsion and
to deal with the problems of keeping humans in space for longer
periods. These and other problems may be couched in the language
of a universalist, peaceful and scientifically-based space program,
but they are quite transparently “dual-use,” in that
faster propulsion systems and “longer dwell times” will
be also required to achieve the vital (read ‘nationalist-imperial’)
goal of racing to seize the military high ground of space against
an adversary who “might have space capabilities.”

The problem with all
this has always been that it is impossible to know if you are
ahead of or behind the phantom menace. When
the adversary does not exist, it has to be invented. So now we
get the insane abstraction of the “war on terror” being
used to justify a ratcheting up of the discourse and language of “space

Peter B. Teets To confirm this, I strongly recommend
a reading of a speech given
by Peter B. Teets to
the Air Force National Symposium in Los Angeles on November 15th
2002, which includes these memorable words:

“We in the military
space business are part of the nation’s warfighting team,
and we will make a vitally important contribution to any conflict
that we face!…. The work we are doing now will make a very
real difference to the outcome of our war on terrorism.”

The appointment of
Teets, almost at the same time as Sean O’Keefe
took over at NASA, to the dual roles of Under-Secretary of the
Air Force and Director of the National
Reconnaissance Office
, has to be understood against a slightly
different background.

It is a classic example of the ‘revolving door’ between
industry and government. Teets retired from the chairmanship of
Lockheed Martin in October 1999,
reportedly admitting (graciously, it would seem) that he was in part responsible
for the company’s lack-lustre performance at the time. Lockheed Martin
and Boeing are equal partners in United Space Alliance, a company
which, “as a contractor for NASA, is responsible for the day-to-day operation
and management of the U.S. Space Shuttle fleet.” Finally, Teets’ appointment
should be viewed in the light of the work of the so-called “Rumsfeld
Commission,” also known as the “National Security Space Commission,” which
in January 2001 issued its massive report containing
recommendations on the management and organization of ‘National Security

A few weeks after his appointment, Teets announced:

“I intend to create
an integrated national security space capability… In moving
ahead with this war on terrorism, it’s going to be important
for us to have persistent intelligence — universal in terms
of time, but also universal in terms of space, and on the surface,
under the surface, etcetera…. ”

~ US
Air Force Press
, February 7, 2002

newspeak buzzwords of national security space capability are “space
transformation,” the “joint warfighting concept” and “usa” — which stands not for United States of America, as it did on Columbia’s
right wing, but for “universal situational awareness.” In plain
language, that means knowing what’s going on everywhere, all of the time.
And it is one of the goals of National Security Space Integration.

This “paving
of the road of 21st century warfare,” with its triple
objectives of gaining and maintaining control of the high ground, applying
the capabilities of the new medium to all conceivable forms of
warfighting and developing
a new cadre of “space professionals” reads
a little bit like something out of “Alice in Wonderland” — a
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Meet players like the “National
Security Space Architect,” who brings to the party not
only “impressive space credentials, but a strong warfighter
perspective to space”; meet also the “Director of
National Security Space Integration,” the Director of Air
Force Space Acquisition” and the at the time as yet unappointed
(NRO) “Deputy for Military Space.”

It is tempting to
think of all these members of the team as fighting each other,
and of reorganizational and resource allocation battles
taking place all over the shop: indeed, just as one example, the
US Space Command was last year absorbed by the US Strategic Command.
And all this ‘warfighting’ talk ignores a small legal
problem. Just as in the parlance of “homeland security,” bureaucrats
refer to the “civil liberties hurdles which still need to
be overcome,” meaning they haven’t yet managed to destroy
all freedom, so in the race to militarize space the would-be space
warriors face the small matter of international law, although in
all their utterances they sound blissfully unaware of it. The US
is a signatory to the United Nations Outer
Space Treaty
of 1967, which effectively bans the weaponization
of space.

Even in this context,
however, it seems (and we should perhaps no longer be surprised)
that international treaties do not count
for much. When in November 2000 a resolution reaffirming the outer
space treaty was voted on in the UN, nearly all member countries
voted in favour. Just three states abstained: the US, Israel and
Micronesia (What’s that, you may well ask. Answer: “a
small developing island nation in the Western Pacific”).

I am prepared to go
along with arguments that the UN is redundant, and that there
is not much point to “all that useless talk” when
states can ignore resolutions as it suits them and the final resolution
comes down to military power and the will to inflict absolute annihilation.
Also, in terms of free enterprise, the outer space treaty is a
poor instrument, insisting as it does that only states have rights
when it comes to space exploration. But none of that makes it morally
right for any one state to wield absolute power in an aggressive
manner, be it over its own people, a small portion of humanity
or, who knows, the whole of it some day.

In closing, I come back to Columbia.

It is premature to jump to any conclusion,
though it is well worth reading about the possible explanations
for the disaster circulating on the Internet, many of which have
fascinating ramifications. To me the most promising
so far seems to be that leading-edge experiments
involving the use of spectral imaging were being carried out on
board, both for the purposes of obtaining “see in the dark” long-range
pictures from space and for testing possible new, highly radioactive,
propulsion fuels. In the process of these experiments an unintended
and probably unforeseeable miscalculation of the effects of electromagnetic
energy may have occurred, leading to a devastating lightning or
similar electrical strike on Columbia’s left wing.

The plausibility of
this explanation increases if you bear in mind what I mentioned
earlier about the military focus behind the
appointment of O’Keefe a year ago, the stated need for quicker
launches and much faster propulsion in the future, the publicized
key role of universal surveillance from space in “times of
war,” and the increasingly tight integration of NASA into
military planning.

However, if it were
true, this explanation of the event would involve considerable
loss of face, and might also be judged to
be too revealing of the military applications of the space program.
In a sane world, it would not be difficult for NASA to admit to
such things: that experiments do sometimes go wrong, and in this
case that the ultimate price was paid for one that went totally
wrong. But given the insane world of the “war on terror” in
which we find ourselves, and the time-honoured cult of conspiratorial
secrecy which prevails in all matters governmental, there is a
strong likelihood, despite all assurances to the contrary, that
the panel of military
now charged with investigating what caused the disaster
would not be permitted openly to publish what went wrong. The all-encompassing
shroud of ‘national security’ is pretty thin and threadbare,
but time and again, investigators are either told to put it on,
or themselves decide to wear it, so as not to let the cat out of
the bag.

For the time being, there seems to be no alternative to the shuttle
for manned space flight, so the only real conundrum the investigating
panel would thus be likely to face is how to devise and offer up
for public consumption an explanation which would enable the program
to get going again. For this purpose their explanation would have
to point preferably to some plausible outside factor, rather than
to any structural faults in Columbia, or, if such could not be
found, to a fault on the shuttle which could subsequently be demonstrated
to have been successfully repaired. This was how the Challenger
disaster was handled in 1986, and provides a politically expedient


composition of the panel, known as the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board, is interesting, and seems to suggest that some may believe Columbia
was zapped by a bolt from the blue: apart from the chairman of the panel,
Rear Admiral (Ret.) Harold Gehman, who was in charge of the military investigation
of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, and Rear Admiral Stephen Turcotte,
commander of the U.S. Naval Safety Center at Norfolk, Virginia, other members

  • Major General John L. Barry, director of Plans and Programs,
    HQ Air Force Materiel
    Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
    in Ohio. This base is the home of the notorious top-secret “Hangar
    18” which houses relics from the 1947 Roswell, New Mexico “UFO

  • Major
    General Kenneth W. Hess, U.S. Air Force Chief of Safety, Kirtland
    Air Force base,
    New Mexico. The base runs the Directed
    Energy Directorate of the Air Force’s Directed
    Energy Laboratory: its charter is to improve the Air
    Force’s ability to track
    missiles and then destroy them with laser energy through
    the atmosphere.
  • Brigadier
    General Duane W. Deal, for whom the USAF website provides the
    following information: “Brig. Gen. Duane W. Deal is Commander, 21st Space Wing,
    Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. The Air Force’s
    largest wing geographically and organizationally, the
    wing consists
    of a work
    force of more than 6,000 officer, enlisted, civilian
    and contract employees. This work force provides missile
    and space control
    for combat forces and the governments of the United States,
    Canada and the United Kingdom through its 35 units operating
    14 space
    weapon systems at 20 worldwide locations in six countries
    spread across 10 time zones.”

Thanks to Jim Rarey for the above information.

15, 2003

Wall (send him mail) is a freelance
translator, specializing in the social sciences, who lives in Estoril,


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