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space weapons illustration
Claims that the US is intent on weaponizing space often ignore the very real efforts the Soviet Union made in space weapons during the Cold War. (credit: Defense Department)

Weaponization of space: who’s to blame?

Like children drawing glee in poking a stick into an anthill to see the turmoil they can cause, or teenagers throwing rocks at a chained junkyard dog just to hear him snarl, some elements of the Western news media seem to evince diabolical delight in seeing just how they can inflame good old fashioned Russian paranoia about “enemy threats”, especially from the United States. Regardless of the rationale, such exercises leave measurable scars on the international diplomatic scene.

In Moscow, Colonel General Vladimir Popovkin, commander of the Russian “Space Troops”, has warned that US plans to base weapons in space might lead to war.

Accuracy and consistency has never been a hallmark of this kind of space journalism. It’s been a year now since a White House space policy paper announced the US intention to “deny use” of foreign space assets to interfere in US freedom of action in space, but from the very beginning, major Western media (and the outraged Russian officials who echoed them) have shrieked about an American declaration to “deny access to space” for anybody the US doesn’t like. (Nevermind that the policy makes it clear to anyone who actually reads it that the US has no problem with any other country doing the same things in space the US reserves for itself also to do.) All the news that fits this editorial conclusion is deemed “fit to print”, and it is, but news that does not fit, usually doesn’t get printed.

The latest inflammatory round in this cosmic debate of “It’s America’s fault again” is now taking place, coincident with the well-justified celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Space Age by the USSR’s Sputnik.

In Moscow, Colonel General Vladimir Popovkin, commander of the Russian “Space Troops”, has warned that US plans to base weapons in space might lead to war. Western news media accounts report these statements straight, as if there really were such “plans” to do what the Russians complain about (station weapons in space for space-to-space combat), instead of only studies and tests—the kinds of activities that were they to occur in Russia or China, wouldn’t even be known to exist.

“We don’t want to fight in space,” Popovkin told his audience, “but on the other hand, we’ll not allow any other country to play the master in outer space. The consequences of positioning strike forces in orbit will be too serious.” And he wrote himself a blank check for a future free hand: “If any country will place a weapon in space, then our response will be the same,” he added, to the approving echo of press coverage around the world.

The blame for these trends is widely assigned to the United States (it’s always easier to confront an external threat if you can convince yourself you are in control, since if you believe you instigated the threat by bad behavior, this means you thus can dispel the threat by changing your own behavior). A perfect example of this theme can be found in the special pre-Sputnik-anniversary “Science Times” section of the New York Times, dated September 25. “From the Start, the Space Race Was an Arms Race”, accuses the headline over a long story by veteran space and science correspondent William Broad.

“Sputnik forced the Eisenhower administration to consider a scary new world of space arms,” the story opened. “It did so in two ways: talking peace and preparing for war.” That Eisenhower deliberately assigned America’s satellite project to a research rocket rather than a weapons rocket, and that after Sputnik he established a civilian-controlled space exploration administration (something the Soviets never did), and that saw space as an opportunity for a tension-reducing “Open Skies” strategy that ultimately prevailed and kept the peace for decades—these themes don’t fit the headline, and don’t appear in the text.

“That duality held firm for much of the ensuing half century,” Broad continued. “Washington publicly encouraged peaceful uses of space even while spending billions to explore futuristic weaponry like death rays fired from rocket ships.”

What Broad does not mention, here in the opening or anywhere else in the story, is that if there was any leader in the weaponization of space—not merely its use in support of military activities on Earth, but for space-to-space combat—it was the Soviet Union. What “Moscow spent” is not tallied or reported, just what “Washington spent,” in a perfectly contrived asymmetry of half-truth.

New York Times actually was researching a story on a Soviet orbital beam weapon project in the late 1990’s, as the tenth anniversary of the first test launch of this so-called “Polyus-Skif” system approached.

Not mentioned here, or anywhere else, ever, in the Times (as far as I’ve been able to determine), was the heavy-caliber cannon installed on a Soviet manned space station to destroy American spacecraft, manned or otherwise. Not discussed here are the orbital thermonuclear weapons designed, tested, and deployed by the USSR in the 1960s, whose operation was expressly forbidden by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967—a scrap of paper that provided no protection to their use in a sneak attack on the United States. Not mentioned here, or so far as I can tell ever in the history of the New York Times, are the handguns that the Russians are allowed to pack at the International Space Station (NASA’s website doesn’t mention them either), or the much more serious space-to-space attack vehicles (on standby in earth-based launch tubes) whose very existence Moscow denied for decades.

And despite the Times’ long campaign against the Reagan concept of “Strategic Defense” (“Star Wars” is the Hollywood-derived gimmicky misnomer for the project, which Broad follows again in his article by using the movie War of the Worlds as a current example of space weaponry), there is no mention here of the Soviet project in the mid-1980’s, contemporary with US studies of such a system, for an orbital beam weapon at anti-satellite and anti-missile functions. Broad’s omission of mention of this project—and the apparent absence of any other mention of it on the pages of the Times, anywhere, anyime—is particularly curious.

This is because I have learned that the New York Times actually was researching a story on this project in the late 1990’s, as the tenth anniversary of the first test launch of this so-called “Polyus-Skif” system (May 15, 1987) approached. I understand that significant work was done gathering newly-released Moscow materials, and with Russian scientists who had worked on the project.

But then—so goes the account I have obtained—the story was “spiked”, killed by the newspaper’s editorial board. Retired Soviet prime minister Mikhail Gorbachev, who had approved the orbital weapon project even as he publicly denounced Reagan’s interest in a similar system, wouldn’t cooperate—probably in consideration of his high reputation in the West, he didn’t seem to want the story to get any publicity. The Times acquiesced to this intention, and the story never appeared—and ten years later, a space anniversary special edition can now be written as if that aggressive Soviet space weapon never existed since the Times had never written about it.

Instead, Broad’s article (which for all we know sparked General Popovkin’s latest rants in Moscow) criticizes a project called the “Space Test Bed” as “a first step toward orbital antimissile arms”, even though he admits in the next sentence that it isn’t even funded for 2008-2009.

To call one of his sources, The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), merely “a private group in Cambridge, Mass.”, is equally disingenuous: they have become known as a lobby group opposed to US weapons systems with a track record of ignoring Soviet and Russian space weapons even better than that of the New York Times. To them, the “Space Test Bed” would be “ineffective against speeding missiles, but probably good at shattering satellites”, a “real value”, according to an unnamed source there, that “is certain to be recognized, and perhaps responded to, by other nations” in a space arms race. Popovkin’s blank check to build his own space-to-space weapons, then, is being endorsed by the UCS, and they seem eager to bring this rationale (and their readiness to make excuses on his behalf) to his attention, on the cooperative pages of the Times.

To fabricate and encourage Russian fears of the imminent American “weaponization of space” isn’t merely a matter of politically useful alarmism and ideologically satisfying posturing. To the degree that it reinforces Russian fears and encourages Russian militaristic responses, it is downright dangerous and irresponsible.

Overlooked by both experts and journalists is the inconvenient truth that proposed space-based anti-missile systems will be designed with guidance sensors that depend on hot rocket exhausts and large missile skins, the sort of thing you’d see during an actual launch. Satellites orbiting passively high above Earth are not nearly as big as missiles, and are nowhere near as hot. They usually aren’t firing rocket engines at all. Anti-missile systems of the type under consideration probably could not even detect such targets, much less hit them —but don’t let Popovkin and his comrades learn about that.

Beyond the finger-pointing of who really did what first in space is the more important issue of cause and effect: whose causes justify whose effects? The Soviet space weapons track record shows that none of those systems was ever exploited by the US to justify building a similar one: the US usually chose its arsenal based on assessed requirements, not in a game of “mine is bigger than yours”. And any attempt by the US to field a mirror-image system would no doubt have been severely criticized by those same lobby groups (and newspapers) who today approvingly report on the new Russian claims that any US space weapon (or even any report in the New York Times of a new US space weapon) is full justification for their building one too.

To fabricate and encourage Russian fears of the imminent American “weaponization of space”, then, isn’t merely a matter of politically useful alarmism and ideologically satisfying posturing. To the degree that it reinforces Russian fears and encourages Russian militaristic responses, it is downright dangerous and irresponsible. Shame on the space-war fear mongers: they are part of the problem, not part of the solution, which is accuracy.


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