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Bush targets space-based missile defence system

Naturevolume 409page122 (2001) | Download Citation

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George W. Bush's choice of defence secretary shows that his new administration aims to give the United States a missile defence shield — confirming the fears of some scientists and of US allies.

But some scientific groups say that Bush's choice of Donald Rumsfeld for the position could also herald a push by the United States to establish military supremacy in space.

Rumsfeld is a champion not only of missile defence, but also of US efforts to control space by developing the technology to protect satellites in orbit. Such initiatives could militarize space in the next two decades, a prospect that some defence experts have long urged and others have passionately opposed.

Rumsfeld, who was President Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff and then secretary of defence 25 years ago, chaired a bipartisan commission for Congress in 1998 that helped to build political support for missile defence by warning that Iran, Iraq and North Korea were closer than had been thought to being able to direct nuclear or biological warheads at the United States.

Now, another congressionally mandated commission headed by Rumsfeld is completing a report on the threats to US satellites, which are increasingly vital to military and civilian communications. The report, expected this month, will endorse “US control of space, including defending our own satellites and engaging those of any enemy,” according to one member of the panel.

One sceptic is space-policy analyst John Pike, formerly at the Federation of American Scientists and now at Globalsecurity.org. Pike says that members of Congress pushed for the satellite study because they believe the United States should devise anti-satellite weapons and consider establishing a space force as an arm of the Defense Department. He opposes the idea, arguing that it is “singularly misguided, when we are the only nation with satellites worth shooting at”.

The National Missile Defense (NMD) planned by President Bill Clinton would have been land-based, with interceptor missiles ready for launching from Alaska by 2007. It calls for satellites that would track missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction.

Bush's defence system, by contrast, would use space weaponry. His vision is reminiscent, some observers say, of President Ronald Reagan's 1983 dream of an impenetrable Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed Star Wars. Although the Pentagon has been working for years on lasers that might someday be mounted on aircraft or satellites, such weapons do not yet exist.

In for the kill: a model 'kill device' from the missile defence system tested by the Pentagon last year. Credit: AP

Clinton's proposed NMD is already undergoing painful reappraisal, after two out of three early tests failed. But the Pentagon still plans to attempt at least three missile interceptions this year, and then proceed until 21 tests have been successful.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have concluded that nations that could launch missiles at the United States could also develop countermeasures to defeat a limited defence system. The Cornell University physicist Hans Bethe gave Congress the same advice more than 30 years ago.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/35051760

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