Times' Shaky Spacewar Story

For most of the planet, it will seem like a shocker. But, really, the fact that the Air Force is looking for President Bush's approval to put weapons in space is no revelation. The service has been shouting for orbiting arms for years.SSA.jpgThe New York Times is reporting today that the Air Force wants a new national-security directive to "replace a 1996 Clinton administration policy that emphasized a more pacific use of space, including spy satellites' support for military operations, arms control and nonproliferation pacts."Well, of course that's what the Air Force wants. Last year, an Air Force paper on "Counterspace Operations," signed by chief of staff Gen. John Jumper, declared that the "freedom to attack denying space capability to the adversary" has become a "crucial first step in any military operation." In 2003, the service released a "Transformation Flight Plan," complete with a space weapons wish list -- from anti-satellite lasers to arms that could "strike ground targets anywhere in the world from space."It's from this collection that the Times' Tim Weiner draws at least some of its examples of weapons in orbit. And I'm afraid Weiner may have confused the Air Force's equivalent of day dreams with full-blown, big-money Pentagon development efforts.

[An] Air Force space program, nicknamed Rods From God, aims to hurl cylinders of tungsten, titanium or uranium from the edge of space to destroy targets on the ground, striking at speeds of about 7,200 miles an hour with the force of a small nuclear weapon.
Yes, "Rods from God" is mentioned in the 2003 "Flight Plan." But the idea was debunked so long ago that's it's hard to believe the service is actually pursuing the Rods in any serious way. As Columbia University physics professor Richard Garwin noted, the Rods could only work if they orbited at low altitudes. And that means they "could only deliver one-ninth the destructive energy per gram as a conventional bomb."
[Another] program would bounce laser beams off mirrors hung from space satellites or huge high-altitude blimps, redirecting the lethal rays down to targets around the world.
This is a project Defense Tech has reported on several times, most recently in early May. It's not as outlandish as "Rods from God." But the laser-mirror effort is still in its infancy, with the most basic of experiments now getting started. This is a long way from a weapon, folks.
A [third] seeks to turn radio waves into weapons whose powers could range "from tap on the shoulder to toast."
Obviously, the military is very interested in high-powered microwaves -- the Active Denial crowd control system is the best example. But microwave weapons, based in space? That's just wishful thinking.
The Air Force already has a potential weapon in space. In April, the Air Force launched the XSS-11, an experimental microsatellite with the technical ability to disrupt other nations' military reconnaissance and communications satellites.
This isn't quite right, either. The 305-pound, nine foot-long XSS-11 is a demonstrator to show how maneuverable and autonomous future mini-satellites might be. Down the road, those capabilities would be great to have on an anti-satellite device, sure. But it's a mistake, I think, to call the XSS-11 itself a "weapon." I'll have more to say about the XSS-11 in next month's Popular Mechanics.
A new Air Force strategy, Global Strike, calls for a military space plane carrying precision-guided weapons armed with a half-ton of munitions. General Lord told Congress last month that Global Strike would be "an incredible capability" to destroy command centers or missile bases "anywhere in the world."Pentagon documents say the weapon, called the common aero vehicle, could strike from halfway around the world in 45 minutes. "This is the type of prompt Global Strike I have identified as a top priority for our space and missile force," General Lord said.
Now this project -- which we first looked at back in November 2003 -- is legit, with a hefty $91 million invested into it over the last two years. But, by making so little distinction between this effort and more pie-in-the-sky plans, the Times does its readers a bit of a disservice.What's more, the paper of record actually ignores some of the Air Force's actual, working space weapons while spilling ink over the service's least-likely schemes. In October, the Air Force deployed a radio-frequency jammer, meant to disrupt opponents' satellite communications. And, according to Air Force documents, commercial spacecraft, neutral countries' launching pads even weather satellites are all on the potential target list. To me, that's truly shocking.THERE'S MORE: Winds of Change has an interesting post up about the media-military divide. And Winds sister site Defense Industry Daily points out a new $19.5 contract for Boeing to start working on "large structure deployment and control from space." Be sure to check out Armchair Generalist's take on the Times story, too.
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