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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Arms to Space

Air Date: Week of

U.S. Air Force depiction of deployed Space-Based Laser constellation. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

Death stars and ray guns may be the stuff of science fiction, but some government officials are hoping offensive space weapons will be a reality in the coming decades. Host Steve Curwood talks with Ashton Carter, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy under the Clinton Administration, about developments that could launch these weapons in space.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

As the world’s mayors gather in San Francisco for World Environment Day and celebrate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations, a renewed debate over weapons in space underscores how the earth indeed is but one giant ecosystem. Today, there are U.S. satellites to survey enemy movements with ultra-high resolution and Global Positioning Systems to guide aircraft, naval vessels, and ground forces. Many of these space capabilities are defensive in strategy.
But like Presidents before him, President Bush is now being urged to fund research that could lead to the deployment of offensive space weapons.

With me to talk about just how feasible such weapons might be is Ashton Carter. He was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy under the Clinton Administration, had a hand in writing the 1996 national military space policy, and now teaches at Harvard. Mr. Carter, hello.

CARTER: Hello, good to be with you.

CURWOOD: Um, please give us a brief overview of the kinds of space weapons that are being developed today. I understand that there’s everything from satellite-destroying lasers to earth-targeted uranium missiles or rods?

CARTER: Oh, most of the concepts that people are talking about they’ve been talking about all the time that I’ve been in Defense. I was, uh, as a young pup I worked for Casper Weinberger– people have been talking about these same things. There are lasers that are in space that shine down on the ground and start fires. Missiles that are launched from space to the ground. Uh, there are just lumps of material, or rods of metal, that you de-orbit, and they come screaming down to the ground and bump into a building. So there are various ideas of this kind.

CURWOOD: You said most ideas are old. What new concepts might be kicking around that are encouraging these kinds of discussions?

U.S. Air Force depiction of deployed Space-Based Laser constellation. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

CARTER: I really don’t think – and I’m a physicist by training – I don’t think there are any technological breakthroughs that have occurred. Uh, I think you’re seeing a renewal of an old debate rather than the dawn of new technology in this field. Um, if you put a laser – you can’t just park a laser over your enemy, because you, if you just put a satellite over enemy territory it falls to the ground. So you have to put your weapon not over enemy territory but in orbit over enemy territory. And when a satellite or a weapon is in orbit it’s here this moment, but then in a few minutes it’s over some other country, and in a half an hour or 45 minutes or so it’s over Australia and it doesn’t do you any good. So the fact that the earth is round and that uh, weapons have to be in orbit means that for every weapon you want over your target, you have to put lots of them in orbit. And so these are the kinds of reasons. And, of course, it’s very expensive to put things in orbit. These are the reasons why it’s much easier, cheaper, more efficient to drop a bomb from an airplane than to drop a bomb from space.

CURWOOD: How much further can we go now in militarizing space without putting weapons up there?

CARTER: Um, well, we can go a very substantial way. For example, one thing that’s on the drawing board is satellites that talk to each other by laser beam and create an Internet in the sky. Another is a space-based radar satellite – uh, in fact, a constellation of them – that can see through clouds, and so you would have a continuous record, like one of those cameras at a bank.


CARTER: Then if you had like, for example, a terrorist attack, you can watch the terrorists drive away from the site. You’ll have a record of it just like you have a record of a bank robber robbing a bank. So there are lots of interesting things that would improve the performance of our forces, and that fall short of actually putting weapons into space.

CURWOOD: Um, who are our potential competitors in space?

CARTER: Well the Russians still have a large military space program, as the Soviet Union did, and the Soviet Union really was trying to compete with us one on one. Uh, Russia’s now too poor to continue that program, and you see the gradual decay of a lot of the former Soviet Union’s military satellite constellations. But, while that’s going on, the Chinese are up and coming, they’re launching more and more satellites. The Israelis have military satellites. The Japanese have military satellites in space. The Europeans do. So we’re by no means the only one. But just as we have the most sophisticated and proficient military in the world in general, it’s also true that we have the most proficient and sophisticated military space program of any country in the world.

CURWOOD: Now, there’s no ownership or any international boundaries set in space, so what would we be violating exactly if we were to put weapons up in space?

CARTER: Well we would not be violating anything if we, unless we put nuclear weapons into space. There is a treaty that prohibits putting nuclear weapons into space. Otherwise it’s perfectly within the law to put a weapon in space. The United States has thought twice about doing so, mostly because it’s not economical or useful to put weapons into space. But also because we are so heavily dependent upon the use of space ourselves that it didn’t seem like a good idea to call attention to that fact, or to stimulate others to put weapons into space that might disrupt our satellites that we’re using for military purposes.

CURWOOD: Now in the press it would seem that there are a number of strong advocates for, uh, offensive space weapons in the Bush Administration right now. What do you make of that push for offensive weapons in space? And at the end of the day, what do you think it says about the Bush Administration’s security agenda?

CARTER: There are those in the Bush Administration, and certainly those on Capital Hill, who believe that there are good options, effective options, for deploying missiles in space. There are always enthusiasts to do various things in the military system. You remember President Reagan had Star Wars, and in the end none of that was deployed for the very simple reason – not because anybody was wimpy – but because it didn’t work very well and cost a lot of money.

CURWOOD: So from your perspective this isn’t something that is right or left, but simply unworkable?

CARTER: It’s largely not right, not left, it’s just not attractive as an investment, and I think a lot of these schemes will collapse of their own technical and budgetary weight rather than because one side or other of the policy argument wins.

CURWOOD: Ashton Carter is a professor of Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, and was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy under the Clinton Administration. Mr. Carter, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

CARTER: Good to be with you.



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