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Review: War in Heaven

War in Heaven: The Arms Race in Outer Space
by Helen Caldicott and Craig Eisendrath
The New Press, 2007
hardcover, 192 pp.
ISBN 1-59558-114-6

Timing is one of key factors of success in publishing. Get a book out just as a key trend or topic is getting a lot of publicity, and the book will sell far better than if it came out a little earlier or later, regardless of the quality of the book itself. For example, Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars benefited heavily from being published right when interest in Mars had peaked in 1996 because of the putative discovery of evidence of past life in a Martian meteorite. Similarly, the new book War in Heaven, the new book about space weaponization by activists Helen Caldicott and Craig Eisendrath, may benefit from coming out in the weeks following the Chinese ASAT test in January and the corresponding media attention. However, that doesn’t mean that the test itself will do much to support the case made in the book.

In War in Heaven, Caldicott and Eisendrath argue that the United States is leading the world down the dangerous path of putting weapons in space. Outer space, they write, is full of peaceful potential, from exploration to communications to navigation, all of which is imperiled by Bush Administration plans to develop missile defense systems (including some with space-based components), as well as developing weapons that could attack other satellites and, eventually, space-based weapons that could be used against targets on the Earth. All this, they fear, will create an arms race in space as other nations try to match or counteract America’s space weapons.

These conclusions are based on a number of sources, from the national space policy approved by President Bush last year to papers and research performed by other anti-weaponization advocates to a number of articles in the mass media. At times, though, the sourcing gets thin—a single New York Times article from May 2005 is cited several times in this rather short book—and the authors sometimes appear to have difficulty sorting out fanciful concepts like “rods from God”, which have been around for decades without any real sign of development, from more realistic near-term studies and programs.

It is unlikely that War in Heaven will change many minds on the topic of space weaponization: those who agree with the authors will be emboldened by the book’s statements, while those that disagree will not be convinced by their arguments.

So how does the Chinese ASAT test earlier this year affect the book’s argument? Badly, it turns out. Many in the anti-weaponization community had seen China as a supporter of their cause, because it, along with Russia, backed treaties to ban the use of weapons in space. China, the authors note, “has not tested an anti-satellite device”, a statement that is certainly wrong now and may have been so when the book was written (since there is evidence that the January test was not the first Chinese ASAT test, only the first successful one.) What is one to think now of China’s interest in “prohibiting the deployment of weapons in outer space and the use of force against outer space objects”, in the words of a Chinese diplomat quoted in the book, now that China—not the United States—has destroyed a satellite in space, creating the dangerous orbital debris decried by anti-weaponization advocates? The book, unfortunately, offers no insight on this, since the authors focused entirely on the US as the villain in space weaponization debate.

Even without the Chinese ASAT test, there are flaws in War in Heaven. The authors claim that American military fears of a “space Pearl Harbor”—a surprise enemy attack on US military satellites—“borders on the absurd” because any nation capable of carrying out such an attack would realize that such an attack “would necessarily involve their own nuclear annihilation.” Do the authors really believe that the US would risk a global nuclear war to retaliate for the loss of some satellites? If so, they are more belligerent than even the most hardened war planners in the Pentagon. The book also would have benefited from a thorough fact-checking: in various places the authors claim that Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system will be deployed by 2008 (it is unlikely now that the first operational satellite will be launched by the end of 2008), that a military technology program, the Common Aero Vehicle, “will be tested in 2006” (this in a book with a 2007 copyright date), and, bizarrely, that George H.W. Bush was the vice president for Gerald Ford.

It is unlikely that War in Heaven will change many minds on the topic of space weaponization: those who agree with the authors will be emboldened by the book’s statements, while those that disagree will not be convinced by their arguments, particularly in the light of the Chinese ASAT test. That’s unfortunate, because now is the time for a national, even global, debate on the topic, something that even Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, acknowledged in Congressional testimony last week in regards to a proposal to spend $10 million in fiscal year 2008 on studying options for space-based missile defense. This book is one element of that debate, but hardly the only or even the most important one.